Hamas delegation joins mediators at Gaza ceasefire talks in Cairo

<span>Search and rescue efforts after Israeli attacks in Rafah, Gaza.</span><span>Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images</span>
Search and rescue efforts after Israeli attacks in Rafah, Gaza.Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

A Hamas delegation was in Cairo on Sunday for talks on efforts to broker a ceasefire in the war in Gaza after indications that Israel had provisionally accepted a six-week phased hostage and truce deal before the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Qatari and US mediators also arrived in the Egyptian capital on Sunday, according to the state-linked Al Qahera News.

Talks involving Israeli negotiators took place in the Qatari city of Doha on Saturday and Hamas is expected to respond on Sunday or Monday as time runs out before the unofficial deadline of 10 or 11 March, when Ramadan starts. The month of fasting is often accompanied by an uptick in violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even in quieter years.

A Hamas official said that if Israel were to meet its demands – which include a complete military withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and stepped-up humanitarian aid – this would “pave the way for an agreement within the next 24-48 hours”. Another unnamed Palestinian official told Reuters, however, that a ceasefire deal was still not imminent, saying: “We’re not there yet.”

A US official said on Saturday that Israel had “more or less accepted” a deal presented by mediators. However, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has so far refused to pull troops out of Gaza before Hamas is destroyed and all hostages are freed. Israel had yet to confirm it had accepted the truce plan or whether it would attend the Cairo talks.

Kamala Harris, the US vice president, called on Sunday for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and forcefully pressed Israel to increase the flow of aid to ease what she called “inhumane” conditions and a “humanitarian catastrophe” among the Palestinian people.

Stemming the bloodshed in Gaza has been a difficult diplomatic task in the nearly five-month-old war sparked by Hamas’s attack on Israel in which, according to Israeli figures, about 1,200 people were killed and another 250 abducted.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed more than 30,000 people, displaced more than 85% of the 2.3 million-strong population from their homes and left more than half of the strip’s infrastructure in ruins, according to data from Gaza’s health ministry and the UN.

Increasing the flow of aid is crucial. The local health ministry said on Sunday that 16 children had died from malnutrition and dehydration at Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya, and the UN has said about a quarter of the 2.3 million population is “one step away from famine”.

Hamas has indicated its negotiating position could be influenced by the deaths of 115 Palestinians in Gaza who were killed after Israeli troops opened fire near a crowd of people scrambling to get food from an aid convoy on Thursday.

Israel’s military said on Sunday that a preliminary review found its forces did not strike the convoy and that most Palestinians died in a crowd crush, although it acknowledged it fired at individuals who it said posed a threat to soldiers.

The military spokesperson R Adm Daniel Hagari did not give details on the alleged threat but said “an independent, professional and expert body” would do a more thorough examination that would be shared “hopefully in the coming days”.

UN officials visiting al-Shifa hospital the day after the attack said they saw many survivors with gunshot wounds, matching interviews with doctors treating the injured and witness accounts of the incident.

The scale of the looming starvation has pushed the US to start airdropping food into the besieged territory, a move criticised by aid agencies and human rights groups as expensive and ineffective.

Jordan and some other countries have already begun airdrops. On Sunday, local media broadcast footage of screaming Palestinian children running toward food parcels that drifted on black parachutes on to the strip’s Mediterranean coastline.

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A November truce in which about 100 hostages were freed in exchange for 240 Palestinians in Israeli jails collapsed after a week, and progress on a second deal has proved elusive.

With just a week left until Ramadan begins, civilians in Gaza, the relatives of the remaining hostages and international mediators are all aware that time may be running out to broker a comprehensive ceasefire.

Fierce fighting across the strip continues despite the diplomatic talks. Another 90 people were killed in Israeli airstrikes in the last 24 hours, the health ministry said, including twin babies Baeem and Wissam Abu Anza, who were buried on Sunday as their mother, Rania, wept.

A relative, Shehada Abu Anza, said “only civilians” were in the house when it was bombed, killing 14 members of one family. “All of them were sleeping when suddenly a missile hit and destroyed the whole house,” he said as residents searched the rubble with their bare hands for bodies and also to salvage food.

Residents said airstrikes hit Rafah, the strip’s southernmost town, which has become the last place of relative safety for civilians fleeing the fighting, as well as Khan Younis, where Israeli forces are bogged down in ground battles with Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups. The Hamas media office also reported intense tank shelling in the northern half of Gaza.

The Israeli military said it had hit about 50 targets, including “underground terrorist infrastructure”.

Critics of Joe Biden say he has opted not to use Washington’s leverage as Israel’s principal arms supplier and most important international ally to force Israel to draw down its campaign or increase the flow of aid to Gaza’s desperate civilians.

With Agence France-Presse