Jerusalem, Feb 21 (AP) New attempts are underway to reach a cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas that could pause the war in Gaza, a member of Israel's War Cabinet said late Wednesday.

“Initial signs indicate a possibility of moving forward,” said Benny Gantz, a former military chief and defence minister. It's the first Israeli indication of renewed cease-fire talks since negotiations stalled a week ago.

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However, Gantz repeated his pledge that unless Hamas agrees to release the remaining Israeli hostages in Gaza, Israel will launch a ground offensive into the crowded southern city of Rafah during the upcoming Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Israel's war in Gaza has driven some 80% of the population of 2.3 million from their homes. Most heeded Israeli orders to flee south and around 1.5 million are packed into Rafah near the border with Egypt.

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Israeli strikes across Gaza killed at least 67 Palestinians overnight and into Wednesday, including in areas where civilians have been told to seek refuge.

The war began when Hamas-led militants stormed into southern Israel on Oct 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking around 250 hostage. About a fourth of some 130 captives still being held are believed to be dead. Israel has laid waste to much of the Palestinian territory in response. Gaza's Health Ministry estimates more than 29,000 Palestinians have been killed.

Here's the latest:


JERUSALEM — A member of Israel's three-person War Cabinet says there are new attempts underway to reach a cease-fire deal to pause the war in Gaza.

But Benny Gantz says Israel is ready to press ahead with its offensive in the southern city of Rafah during the upcoming Muslim holy month of Ramadan, despite widespread international opposition.

Israel is seeking the release of the more than 100 hostages that Hamas is still holding in Gaza. Hamas wants an end to the war, withdrawal of all Israeli troops and the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Weeks of efforts by the US, Egypt and Qatar have so far not yielded a deal. However Gantz, a former military chief and defense minister, said there are “initial signs that indicate the possibility of moving forward.”

“We will not stop looking for the way and we will not miss any opportunity to bring the girls and boys home,” he added.

Israel has identified Rafah, a city on the Egyptian border where over half of Gaza's population has sought refuge, as its next target. It says Rafah is the last remaining Hamas stronghold after nearly five months of fighting.

Gantz said Israel will evacuate the hundreds of thousands of civilians in Rafah before striking, but repeated his pledge that the offensive will take place during Ramadan if hostages are not released.

“I repeat — if there is no outline for the (hostage) release, we will also operate during Ramadan,” he said.

The US and other members of the international community have urged Israel not to strike Rafah without a plan to protect civilians.

Ramadan is expected to begin around March 10.


GENEVA — The head of the World Health Organisation says he hasn't spoken to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a decade and will “probably” make contact now, at a time when Israel's military campaign in Gaza has devastated medical facilities there.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, when asked about his contact with Netanyahu in recent months, said he had not been in touch with the Israeli leader since he served as Ethiopia's foreign minister in 2014.

“So probably I will take that as a recommendation and make contact,” Tedros told a WHO news conference on Wednesday, noting that the organisation's country office has been in contact with Israeli authorities.

Tedros has made repeated heartfelt statements on how Israel's war in Gaza has decimated the health sector. However, his comments Wednesday were the first time he publicly said he hasn't tried talking to Netanyahu about the how the war is being conducted.

Tedros, who led the UN health agency's response to the coronavirus pandemic, has over the years met with many world leaders including Chinese President Xi Jinping, before the pandemic was declared, and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Hospitals in Gaza have repeatedly come under fire by Israel's military during the monthslong war. Israel has accused the militant group Hamas, which runs Gaza, of using medical facilities as cover for its operations.

WHO has listed a total of 754 “attacks on health care” — including strikes that hit ambulances, medical facilities, health care workers and any other attacks that affect the provision of health care — in occupied Palestinian areas since Oct 7.

On Tuesday, WHO said 32 patients in critical condition had been transferred from Nasser Medical Complex in southern Gaza to other facilities in recent days, after the complex became “non-functional” following an Israeli siege and military raid.

“The health and humanitarian situation in Gaza is inhumane and continues to deteriorate,” Tedros said in his opening remarks on Wednesday.


GENEVA — Switzerland will ban the Palestinian militant group Hamas, the government said Wednesday.

Under the ban, Swiss authorities can more easily apply preventative measures to deny entry or expel anyone suspected of affiliation with Hamas, and exchange information with foreign authorities more openly in cases of suspected terrorism financing linked to the group.

The Federal Council, Switzerland's seven-member executive branch, said the ban will affect Hamas and any potential successor organisations. The Swiss government already listed Hamas as a terror organization just days after the deadly Oct 7 attacks in Israel.

Acts of support for Hamas could be punishable with penalties of up to 20 years in prison, depending on the level of influence in the group, the government said in a statement. However, the ban so far is limited to five years, but it can be extended by parliament.


TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel's parliament has given overwhelming approval to a declaration expressing opposition to international efforts to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state.

Wednesday's vote, approved by 99 of 120 lawmakers, is not binding but reflects the widespread sentiment in Israel as it battles Hamas militants in Gaza for a fifth month. Only nine lawmakers voted against the measure.

“Israel outright rejects international edicts regarding a permanent settlement with the Palestinians. The settlement, to the extent that it is reached, will be solely through direct negotiations between the parties, without preconditions,” it says.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Cabinet adopted the declaration earlier in the week.

Netanyahu went on the offensive after media reports arose last week of a possible roadmap toward establishing a Palestinian state from the US administration and Arab countries. The United States has also said Palestinian statehood is a key element in a broader vision for the normalization of relations between Israel and regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia.

The international community overwhelmingly supports an independent Palestinian state as part of a future peace agreement. Netanyahu's government is filled with hard-liners who oppose Palestinian independence. (AP)

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