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Hamas, Israel entrench Gaza truce positions

Palestinians search for casualties in the rubble of a house destroyed in an Israeli strike on Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip
— Gaza Strip (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

Efforts aimed at securing an elusive truce in exchange for hostages held in Gaza were due to resume Monday as disagreement between Israel and Hamas over demands to end the seven-month war intensified.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that "surrendering" to a demand to end the war would amount to defeat, while Qatar-based Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh accused Netanyahu of sabotaging the talks.

Negotiations were due to continue Monday in Qatar, where CIA director Bill Burns was expected for "emergency" talks on mediation efforts with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, a source with knowledge of the discussions told AFP.

A Hamas official said Sunday the group's delegation for Gaza truce talks was headed to Doha for "consultations", after the last round of talks in Cairo failed to produce a breakthrough.

Hamas negotiators are then due back in Cairo on Tuesday, said Al-Qahera News, a site linked to Egyptian intelligence services.

In Rafah in southern Gaza, where about 1.2 million Palestinians have sought shelter, medics and first responders said 16 people were killed Sunday in Israeli air strikes, hours after Hamas rockets had killed three Israeli soldiers.

Residents of the southern Gaza city told AFP they feared an upsurge in violence if truce talks collapsed.

"We are on pins and needles", said Naja Shaat, 59.

- 'Lost hope' -

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in Jerusalem

Gaza's bloodiest-ever war began following Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

Militants also seized some 250 hostages, with Israel estimating that 128 hostages abducted on October 7 remain in Gaza, including 35 who the military says are dead.

Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed at least 34,683 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

The Palestinian civilian toll has strained ties between Israel and its main military supplier and ally the United States.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that "the only thing standing between the people of Gaza and a ceasefire is Hamas".

Negotiators met in Cairo Sunday without an Israeli delegation present.

Qatari, Egyptian and US mediators had proposed a 40-day pause in the fighting and an exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners, according to details released by Britain.

Any truce reached would be the first since a week-long November ceasefire saw a hostage-prisoner swap.

Israelis carry posters with images of hostages held in Gaza at a rally in Tel Aviv on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Netanyahu, whose coalition includes ultra-nationalist parties, faces regular protests demanding a deal to bring the hostages home.

Demonstrators, some carrying posters with images of the captives, gathered in Tel Aviv on Sunday, as Israel marked national Holocaust Remembrance Day.

According to a statement from Netanyahu's office, he told his cabinet Israel would not let Hamas "take control of Gaza again, rebuild their military infrastructure and return to threaten the citizens of Israel".

"Israel will not agree to Hamas's demands, which mean surrender, and will continue the fighting until all its goals are achieved," he added.

Haniyeh said Netanyahu wanted to "invent constant justifications for the continuation of aggression, expanding the circle of conflict, and sabotaging efforts made through various mediators and parties".

- 'Expect an escalation' -

Previous negotiation efforts had stalled in part because of Hamas's demand for a lasting ceasefire and Netanyahu's vows to crush its remaining fighters in Rafah.

Hamas in a statement insisted it maintained a "positive and responsible approach" and said it was determined to reach an agreement.

The statement mentioned that Hamas's key demands include "a complete end" to the fighting, Israeli withdrawal "from the entire Gaza Strip, the facilitation of the return of displaced people, the intensification of relief efforts", reconstruction efforts and a prisoner-hostage exchange deal.

Netanyahu has vowed to invade Rafah regardless of any truce, and despite concerns from the United States, other countries and aid groups.

At the start of the war, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said his country would impose a "complete siege" blocking food, water and other supplies.

Palestinian Orthodox Christians attend Easter mass outside the church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza City

Continuous appeals for greater access have, according to the UN, led to some improvements recently.

Israel in December reopened the southern Kerem Shalom border crossing for aid, but on Sunday the army said it was targeted with projectiles and "closed to the passage of humanitarian aid trucks".

Hamas's armed wing claimed the rocket fire, saying militants had targeted troops.

The army later announced three soldiers were killed in the attack and 12 were wounded, three seriously.

An AFP correspondent and witnesses reported shelling and gunfire in Gaza City Sunday, and helicopter fire in central and southern Gaza. The Israeli military later said it struck a Hamas "command and control position" in central Gaza.

Arwa Saqr, displaced from the southern city of Khan Yunis, said she has "lost hope that the negotiations will succeed".

In Rafah, where the army said the rockets were launched from, 35-year-old Mohammed Al-Najjar said he expected "an escalation."

- Al Jazeera -

Netanyahu on Sunday also announced a government decision to close operations in Israel of Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera, which has broadcast round-the-clock coverage of the conflict.

It went off-air a short time later.

Trucks entering the Gaza Strip

The network condemned Israel's decision as a "criminal act", and said it would take legal action.

The war has raised tensions in the wider region, with the Israeli army saying early Monday its fighter jets had intercepted a drone that approached the country from the east.

The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a loose alliance of Iran-backed groups, said early Monday it had targeted Israel's Eilat port with armed drones.