Hamas heads to truce talks as Rafah braces for assault

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Negotiations to pause the Israel-Hamas war and free the remaining hostages headed into a second day in Cairo yesterday, as displaced Gazans braced for an expected Israeli assault on their last refuge of Rafah.

A Hamas source told AFP that a delegation was headed to the Egyptian capital to meet Egyptian and Qatari mediators, after Israeli negotiators held talks with the mediators on Feb. 13.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was also in Cairo yesterday for talks with his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

CIA Director William Burns had joined Feb. 12’s talks with David Barnea, head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service, which Egyptian media said had been mostly “positive.”

U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby described the negotiations as “constructive and moving in the right direction.”

Mediators are racing to secure a pause to the fighting before Israel proceeds with a full-scale ground incursion into the Gaza Strip’s far-southern city of Rafah, where more than 1.4 million Palestinians are trapped.

The potential for mass civilian casualties has triggered urgent appeals, even from close allies, for Israel to hold off sending troops into the last major population centre they have yet to enter in the four-month war.

Key ally the United States has said it will not back any ground operation in Rafah without a “credible plan” for protecting civilians.

Rafah is the main entry point for desperately needed relief supplies and U.N. agencies have warned of a humanitarian disaster if an assault goes ahead.

U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said any military operation “could lead to a slaughter.

Terrified civilians have been locked in a desperate search for safety.

“My three children were injured, where can I go?” Dana Abu Chaaban asked at the city’s border crossing with Egypt, where she was hoping to be allowed across with her bandaged-up sons.

Pressure has grown on Egypt to open its border to Palestinian civilians, hundreds of thousands of whom have sought shelter in makeshift camps by the border where they face outbreaks of hepatitis and diarrhoea and a scarcity of food and water.

But it remains closed to Gazans.

“For 100 days we enter the crossing and beg them to let us cross, or to do anything to help us,” Habiba Nakhala said.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said civilians in Rafah “need to be protected,” calling them “exposed and vulnerable”

The health ministry in the Hamas-run territory said yesterday that 104 people had been killed overnight.

Late on Feb. 13, the military released a video it said was from a security camera and showed Gaza’s Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar and family members escaping through a tunnel days after the Oct. 7 attack that launched the war, now in its fifth month.

“The hunt will not stop until he is captured alive or dead,” Israeli army spokesperson Daniel Hagari told reporters.

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