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Israel’s cease-fire negotiators to get more authority in hostage talks

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, announced Thursday that the government “will expand the authority given to our hostage negotiators.” His comments, delivered in a meeting with U.S. Mideast envoy Brett McGurk, signaled a small sign of progress in cease-fire talks.

Benny Gantz, who sits on Israel’s War Cabinet with Gallant and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said late Wednesday that new attempts are underway to reach a cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas that could pause the war in Gaza and bring the release of around 130 Israeli hostages held by Hamas terrorists since their Oct. 7 terrorist attack on southern Israel. It was the first Israeli indication of new efforts since negotiations stalled a week ago.

But Gantz, a former military chief and defense minister, repeated his pledge that unless Hamas terrorists agree to release the remaining hostages, Israel will launch a ground offensive into Gaza’s southernmost town, Rafah, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins around March 10.

The heads of 13 U.N. agencies and five other aid groups issued a joint plea for a cease-fire late Wednesday, warning that an attack on Rafah will bring “mass casualties” and could “deal a death blow” to the humanitarian operation bringing aid to Palestinians, which “is already on its knees.” Earlier this week, the World Food Program had to halt food deliveries to northern Gaza because of increasing chaos.

The foreign ministers of 26 European countries on Thursday called for a pause in fighting leading to a longer cease-fire. They urged Israel not to take military action in Rafah “that would worsen an already catastrophic humanitarian situation.”

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, after the Oct. 7 terrorist attack, in which terrorists from the territory stormed into southern Israeli communities, killing around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping around 250 people.

Israel’s bombardment and ground offensive in Gaza has killed more than 29,400 people, the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza said Thursday. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its count.

A flurry of seven Israeli strikes hit Rafah early Thursday. Strikes in central Gaza overnight killed 44 people, according to hospital officials there.

Around 100 hostages were released in a swap for Palestinian prisoners during a weeklong cease-fire in November. Israel blames civilian deaths on Hamas, saying it operates among the population.

The United States, Israel’s top ally, has been working with mediators Egypt and Qatar to try to broker a deal for a cease-fire of several months that would include the release of hostages.

But talks stalled last week after Netanyahu rejected Hamas’ demands for any hostage release: a complete end to Israel’s offensive in Gaza and withdrawal of its troops, along with the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including top terrorists.

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