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Israeli officials to meet on proposed pause in Gaza while Cabinet is set to approve plan for Rafah

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Deir el-Balah, Gaza Strip -

Israeli officials will meet Saturday night on the next steps after the latest talks with the United States, Egypt and Qatar in search of a deal on pausing the fighting in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

But Netanyahu announced that he'll convene the Cabinet early next week to “to approve the operational plans for action in Rafah,” including the evacuation of civilians.

Despite widespread warnings from the international community about an Israeli military ground operation in the southern city of Rafah, where more than half of Gaza's population now shelters, Netanyahu's statement said that “only a combination of military pressure and firm negotiations” would achieve Israel's aims in the war.

A senior official from Egypt, which along with Qatar is a mediator between Israel and the Hamas militant group, said mediators were waiting for Israel's official response to a draft deal that includes the release of up to 40 women and older hostages held in Gaza in return for up to 300 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, mostly women, minors and older people.

The Egyptian official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations, said the proposed six-week pause in fighting would include allowing hundreds of aid trucks to enter Gaza every day, including the northern half of the besieged territory. He said that both sides agreed to continue negotiations during the pause for further releases and a permanent cease-fire.

Negotiators face an unofficial deadline of the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan around Mar. 10.

Hamas political official Osama Hamdan noted that the group wasn't at the talks, but asserted to reporters in Beirut on Friday that Israel had refused its main demands, including stopping the “aggression” and withdrawing from Gaza.

The Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza said Saturday that the bodies of 92 Palestinians killed in Israeli bombardments were brought to hospitals over the past 24 hours, raising the overall toll in nearly five months of war to 29,606. The total number of wounded rose to nearly 70,000.

The ministry's death toll doesn't distinguish between civilians and combatants, but it has said that two-thirds of those killed were children and women. Israel says its troops have killed more than 10,000 Hamas fighters, but hasn't provided details.

An Israeli airstrike hit a house in Rafah, killing at least eight people. including four women and a child, health authorities said. An Associated Press journalist saw the bodies at Abu Youssef al-Najjar hospital.

“Enough, enough. Either the Israelis or us should stop. There should be a truce,” said neighbor Abdul-Qader Shubeir, who described feeling lost at not being immediately able to put out the fire burning the bodies.

NEW GENOCIDE ALLEGATIONS

Brazil’s president alleged Saturday that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians, doubling down on harsh rhetoric after stirring controversy a week ago by comparing Israel’s military offensive in Gaza to the Nazi Holocaust in which six million Jews and others perished during World War II.

Israel has pushed back against genocide claims made at the UN’s top court and elsewhere, saying its war targets the militant group Hamas, not the Palestinian people. It has held Hamas responsible for civilian deaths, arguing that the group operates from civilian areas.

“What the Israeli government is doing is not war, it is genocide,” Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva wrote on X, formerly Twitter. “Children and women are being murdered.”

In response to Lula’s initial comments, Israel declared him a persona non grata, summoned Brazil’s ambassador and demanded an apology. Lula recalled Brazil’s ambassador to Israel for consultations.

Last month, South Africa filed a landmark case with the International Court of Justice, accusing Israel of genocide against Palestinians. The court issued a preliminary order ordering Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in Gaza.

Israel, created in part as a refuge for survivors of the Holocaust, has accused South Africa of hypocrisy. South Africa has compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza with the treatment of Black South Africans during apartheid, framing the issues as fundamentally about people oppressed in their homeland.

HUNGER AND DISEASES SPREAD

Israel declared war after the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel in which militants killed about 1,200 people and took around 250 hostages. More than 100 hostages remain in captivity in Gaza.

The rising civilian death toll and worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza have amplified calls for a cease-fire. Hunger and infectious diseases are spreading and about 80 per cent of Gaza's 2.3 million people have been displaced, with about 1.4 million crowded into Rafah on the border with Egypt.

“There are choking, skyrocketing prices. It’s terrifying. There is no source of income. The area is very overcrowded," said Hassan Attwa, a displaced man from Gaza City who now shelters in a tent on the sand in Mawasi in the south. "The garbage, may God bless you, is not collected at all. It stays piled up. It turns into a mess and clay when it rains. The situation is disastrous in every sense of the word.”

In Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza, children banged on pots as part of a protest outside a closed hospital demanding more aid to the north.

Netanyahu has vowed to fight until “total victory," but is under pressure at home. Police used a water cannon to disperse anti-government protesters in Tel Aviv on Saturday night. Others protested in Jerusalem.

Samy Magdy reported from Cairo. Julia Frankel contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

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