Israel prepares return to ceasefire talks; UN says Gaza hunger crisis worsens

March 17, 2024 11:51 am

[Source: Reuters]

The main U.N. aid agency operating in Gaza said on Saturday that acute malnutrition was accelerating in the north of the Palestinian enclave as Israel prepared to send a delegation to Qatar for new ceasefire talks on a hostage deal with Hamas.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) said one in three children under the age of two in northern Gaza is now acutely malnourished, putting more pressure on Israel over the looming famine.

On Friday, Israel said it would send a delegation to Qatar for more talks with mediators after its enemy Hamas presented a new proposal for a ceasefire with an exchange of hostages and prisoners.

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The delegation will be led by the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, David Barnea, a source familiar with the talks said, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeking to convene his security cabinet to discuss the proposal before the talks start. Netanyahu’s office has said the latest Hamas offer was still based on “unrealistic demands.”

Efforts failed to secure a temporary ceasefire before Islam’s holy month of Ramadan started a week ago, and Israel said on Friday it planned a new offensive against an Hamas stronghold in Rafah, the last relatively safe city in Gaza after five months of war.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, starting a visit to the region, voiced concern about an assault on Rafah, saying there was a danger it would result “in many terrible civilian casualties”.

On Friday, Netanyahu’s office said he had approved an attack plan on Rafah, where more than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents are sheltering, and that the civilian population would be evacuated. It gave no time frame and there was no sign of imminent preparations on the ground.

The Hamas offer, reviewed by Reuters, foresees dozens of Israeli hostages freed in return for hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli jails during a weeks-long ceasefire that would let more aid into Gaza. Hamas also called for talks in a later stage on ending the war, but Israel has said it is only willing to negotiate a temporary truce.

Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan told Al Jazeera the group’s proposal is so realistic that “no one can object to it” and claimed mediators had reacted positively.

He said it consists of two stages, with a complete “cessation of aggression” at the start of the second one – something Israel has rejected, vowing to resume its goal of destroying Hamas once any truce expires.

Families of Israeli hostages and their supporters again gathered in Tel Aviv, urging a deal for their release.