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Meeting of Israel, Qatar officials raises prospects of hostage talks

CAIRO/GAZA/JERUSALEM — Israel appeared to confirm that new negotiations were under way to recover hostages held by Hamas, after a source said Israel’s intelligence chief met the prime minister of Qatar, a country mediating in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a press conference on Saturday the war in Gaza was existential and must be fought until victory. He said Gaza would be demilitarized and under Israeli security control.

Israel’s offensive in Gaza helped clinch a partial hostage-release deal in November, Mr. Netanyahu said, vowing to maintain intense military pressure on Hamas. He has vowed to destroy the militant Palestinian group, which runs the densely populated strip.

“The instruction I am giving the negotiating team is predicated on this pressure, without which we have nothing,” he said.

Hamas militants killed 1,200 people and captured 240 hostages in a surprise raid into Israel on Oct. 7. Israel’s counteroffensive has killed close to 19,000 people, according to Gaza health authorities, and left thousands buried in the rubble.

Aid organizations say the destruction of Gaza and the displacement of most of its 2.3 million people — many living in tents and makeshift shelters without food or clean water — is a humanitarian crisis.

The head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, David Barnea, met Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani late on Friday, according to a source with knowledge of the matter, as attention turned to a possible Gaza truce and a prisoner and hostage deal.

The meeting in Europe was apparently the first between senior officials from Israel and Qatar, which has been acting as a mediator, since the collapse of a seven-day ceasefire in late November.

Mr. Netanyahu sidestepped a question about the meeting but confirmed he had given instructions to the negotiating team.

“We have serious criticisms of Qatar,” he said, alluding to the gas-rich Gulf state’s ties to Hamas and Israel’s arch-foe Iran. “But right now we are trying to complete the recovery of our hostages.”

Hamas said in a statement it “affirms its position not to open any negotiations to exchange prisoners unless the aggression against our people stops once and for all,” adding: “The movement communicated this position to all mediators.”

The accidental killing of three hostages by Israeli forces has put increased pressure on Mr. Netanyahu to find a way to secure the release of those held.

As Mr. Netanyahu spoke, several hundred people staged a protest in Tel Aviv, with some holding placards, including one saying “get them out of hell.” A speaker shouted: “Bring them home now!”

At nightfall on Saturday, residents reported intensified fighting in the centre of Khan Younis in southern Gaza, with Israeli planes and tanks bombing and shelling and the sound of rocket grenades, apparently fired by Hamas fighters.

“Every day the situation gets worse. Food gets less, water gets worse. Only death, fear and destruction get greater,” said Samira, 40, a mother of four, who is displaced in Rafah, near the southern border with Egypt.

In signs of the wider ramifications of the conflict, Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthis said they had attacked the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat with a swarm of drones, one of several drone incidents reported in the region on Saturday.

Two major freight firms said they would avoid the Suez Canal as the Houthis stepped up attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea.

The US Central Command said the destroyer Carney had shot down 14 Houthi drones in the Red Sea. Britain said one of its warships had shot down a suspected attack drone targeting merchant shipping. — Reuters

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