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Israel mulls hostage deal as Netanyahu plans ‘action’ in Rafah

A man sits amid the debris of destroyed houses in the aftermath of Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Thursday.  (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
By Bryan Pietsch, Andrew Jeong and Victoria Bisset Washington Post

Israel’s war cabinet met late Saturday to discuss the framework of a potential new deal to free hostages still held in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, as protesters eager for an agreement ramped up pressure on their leaders, rallying in Jerusalem and clashing with police in central Tel Aviv.

The meeting comes as officials reported some progress in hostage talks held Friday in Paris, where Egypt, Israel, the United States and Qatar, which serves as a Hamas intermediary, met to lay the groundwork for a possible deal.

Depending on the details, the agreement could bring some respite for Gaza, where Israel’s punishing campaign has killed tens of thousands and brought much of the population to the brink of famine. As part of the broader negotiations, Hamas has proposed freeing some hostages in exchange for an extended pause in the fighting and large-scale aid deliveries to civilians.

Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups took more than 250 people hostage when they attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7. Israel says 134 hostages are still being held, including at least 30 who were either killed on the day of the attack or later died in captivity.

But even as Netanyahu signaled that the talks might move forward, he also doubled down on the military operation to eliminate Hamas, saying in a statement that “only a combination of military pressure and firm negotiations will lead to the release of our hostages.”

He said he would convene the war cabinet again early next week to seek approval for “operational plans for action” in Rafah, the city in southern Gaza that is now hosting the majority of the population, many of them in tent camps.

Netanyahu said that the plans would include the “evacuation of the civilian population” from Rafah, but the United Nations and international aid agencies have warned that there is nowhere for them to go.

The Biden administration has also discouraged Israel from targeting Rafah without first taking measures to protect civilians. Rafah sits on the border with Egypt, but Cairo has said it will not allow Israel to push the Palestinian population into Egyptian territory.

Israel’s military has already launched some military operations in Rafah, including deadly airstrikes and a raid earlier this month to free two hostages who were held there.

A group of four Democratic senators cited the pending operation in Rafah, as well as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza more generally, in a letter Friday urging the administration to ensure that future U.S. military aid to Israel would not “make an already catastrophic situation even worse.”

The letter came as more than two dozen U.N. rights experts urged countries to halt the export to Israel of arms that would be used in Gaza, saying such transfers of weapons and ammunition could violate international humanitarian law.

In a statement, the experts – who are part of the “special procedures,” a body of independent experts in the U.N. Human Rights Council – said the need for an “arms embargo on Israel is heightened by the International Court of Justice’s [preliminary] ruling on 26 January 2024 that there is a plausible risk of genocide in Gaza and the continuing serious harm to civilians since then.”

Francesca Albanese, U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory and one of the signatories to the statement, said on social media that sending weapons to Israel that may be used in Gaza “may amount to complicity in atrocity crimes.”

Israel has rejected the allegations of genocide brought by South Africa at the ICJ, the U.N.’s top court, while the Biden administration dismissed the filing as “meritless.”

The ICJ on Jan. 26 ordered Israel to prevent the possibility of genocide, allow more aid into Gaza and penalize officials and soldiers for comments that amount to incitement – and gave the country a month to submit a report outlining how it is implementing these orders.

Here’s what else to know

- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a postwar plan that pushes for the country’s indefinite military control over Gaza. Under the proposal, Israel would maintain a security zone in northern Gaza and have a presence on the enclave’s southern border with Egypt. It also calls for Gaza’s “complete demilitarization.” The Palestinian Authority said Netanyahu’s plan was a bid to obstruct the creation of a Palestinian state.

- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reversed the Trump administration’s position on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, saying they are “inconsistent with international law.” He said the Biden administration “maintains firm opposition to settlement expansion.” Netanyahu’s government this week announced plans to build thousands more settlement homes after a shooting attack in the West Bank.

- Ambulance teams from the Palestine Red Crescent Society carried out a fourth mission to evacuate patients from Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis following an Israeli raid. Eighteen wounded patients were transferred to other medical facilities in Gaza, according to the Red Crescent. The World Health Organization said Friday that the “dismantling and degradation of the Nasser Medical Complex is a massive blow to Gaza’s health system.”

- At least 29,606 people have been killed in Gaza and 69,737 injured since the war began, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants. Israel estimates that about 1,200 people were killed in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack and says 237 soldiers have been killed since the start of its military operation in Gaza.

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Niha Masih contributed to this report.