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A man writes a message of thanks to students in the US protesting in solidarity with the people of Gaza, on a tent at a camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on April 27, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

JERUSALEM: Diplomatic efforts intensified on Sunday to reach a long sought-after truce and hostage-release deal in Gaza, as Hamas said it would travel to mediator Egypt to deliver its response to Israel’s latest proposal.

The Israeli government has come under intense pressure to reach a ceasefire from its global allies, as well as from protesters within Israel demanding the release of hostages seized by Hamas during their October 7 attack that triggered the war.

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A Hamas delegation will arrive in Egypt on Monday to deliver the group’s response to Israel’s new hostage and truce counterproposal, a senior official of the militant group told AFP.

Egypt, Qatar and the United States have been trying to mediate a new truce ever since a one-week halt to the fighting in November saw 80 Israeli hostages exchanged for 240 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

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Hamas has previously insisted on a permanent ceasefire — a condition that Israel has rejected.

However the Axios news website, citing two Israeli officials, reported that Israel’s latest proposal includes a willingness to discuss the “restoration of sustainable calm” in Gaza after hostages are released.

It is the first time in the nearly seven-month war that Israeli leaders have suggested they are open to discussing an end to the war, Axios said.

A Hamas source close to the negotiations told AFP that the group “is open to discussing the new proposal positively”.

The source added that the group is “keen to reach an agreement that guarantees a permanent ceasefire, the free return of displaced people, an acceptable deal for (prisoner) exchange and ensuring an end to the siege” in Gaza.

The new hopes of a potential truce came as world leaders and humanitarian groups warned that a looming Israeli invasion of the southernmost city of Rafah would lead to massive civilian causalities.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas appealed to the US to stop Israel from invading Rafah, which he said would be “the biggest disaster in the history of the Palestinian people”.

The US - Israel’s main ally and weapons supplier - was the only nation capable of preventing Israel from “committing this crime”, Abbas told a global economic summit in Saudi Arabia.

‘Momentum’ for truce talks

Abbas spoke at a World Economic Forum (WEF) summit that opened Sunday in Riyadh, which US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and high-ranking officials from other countries trying to broker a ceasefire are also due to attend.

While there is no Israeli participation, the other key players will discuss the situation in Gaza, WEF president Borge Brende said.

There was “some new momentum now in the talks around the hostages, and also for... a possible way out of the impasse we are faced with in Gaza,” he said.

Palestinian students study in a makeshift tent camp as schools remain closed due to Israel's military offensive on April 28, 2024 Image Credit: Reuters

The war began with Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack which resulted in the deaths of about 1,170 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive against Hamas has killed at least 34,454 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Israel estimates that 129 hostages seized on October 7 are still being held in Gaza, including 34 the military says are dead.

The Gaza health ministry on Sunday reported at least 66 deaths in the past 24 hours.

Israel pummels Gaza

Israel carried out air strikes and shelling in Gaza overnight, hitting three houses in the southern city of Khan Younis, an AFP correspondent said Sunday, also reporting strikes on Gaza City and Rafah.

The Israeli military said its jets struck dozens of terror targets including “launch sites, armed terrorists and observation posts”.

In central Gaza, Mohammed Al Hattab said he found his one-year-old boy in the rubble after an Israeli air strike hit the Nuseirat refugee camp over the weekend.

The boy is being treated for a fractured skull, while his two-year-old daughter’s face was “completely disfigured” in the strike, he told AFP.

Most of Gaza’s population has taken refuge in Rafah, according to the United Nations, many in makeshift shelters after fleeing violence elsewhere.

Despite international outcry, Israel has vowed to invade the city, where Israel’s military says Hamas is holding hostages.

On the side of a tent in Rafah on the weekend, a Palestinian wrote a message to the thousands of protesters on US university campuses.

“Thank you, students in solidarity with Gaza, your message has reached,” it read.

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Relatives and supporters of hostages taken captive by Palestinian militants in Gaza during the October 7 attacks during a demonstration call for their release, in Tel Aviv on April 27, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

Hostages call for deal

A heated rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday night was the latest held by protesters demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strike a deal that would see the hostages released.

Just hours earlier, Hamas released a video featuring two of the hostages, Keith Siegel and Omri Miran, who appeared to speak under duress.

“Keep protesting, so that there will be a deal now,” Miran said in the footage.

“We are in danger here, there are bombs, it is stressful and scary,” said Siegel, a 64-year-old US citizen.

The Israeli military offensive has turned vast swathes of Gaza into rubble and sparked a humanitarian crisis.

UN humanitarian agency OCHA has warned that “famine thresholds in Gaza will be breached within the next six weeks” if a massive amount of food aid does not reach the territory.

A British ship set to house hundreds of US troops building a temporary pier to boost aid deliveries to Gaza set sail from Cyprus on Saturday.

In the central Gaza city of Deir el-Balah, artist Mahdi Karira has turned discarded tin cans into puppets to entertain displaced Palestinian children.

Karira holds performances to “bring joy to the children”, and to show “that we remain rooted on this land despite the aggression”, he told AFP.