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Gaza ceasefire talks deadlocked, merchant vessel damaged in Red Sea

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Talks on a ceasefire and hostage exchange between Israel and Hamas were at an impasse on Wednesday, as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza deepened and a merchant vessel was on fire after an attack in the Red Sea.

A tank maneuvers near the Israel-Gaza border, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from Israel's border with Gaza in southern Israel, March 6, 2024. Reuters/Amir Cohen

Talks on a ceasefire and hostage exchange between Israel and Hamas were at an impasse on Wednesday, as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza deepened and a merchant vessel was on fire after an attack in the Red Sea.

Negotiators from the Palestinian militant group, Qatar and Egypt - but not Israel - are trying to secure a 40-day ceasefire in time for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which begins early next week.

Urging Hamas to accept the terms on the table, President Joe Biden said on Tuesday that U.S. ally Israel was cooperating and "a rational offer" had been made for a ceasefire in exchange for the release of Israeli hostages.

"It’s in the hands of Hamas right now," he toldreporters, warning that it would be "very dangerous" if fighting continued into Ramadan.

Hamas pledged to continue to take part in the Cairo talks, but officials in the militant group said a ceasefire must be in place before hostages are freed, Israeli forces must leave Gaza and all Gazans must be able to return to homes they have fled.

"We are showing the required flexibility in order to reach a comprehensive cessation of aggression against our people, but the occupation is still evading the entitlements of this agreement," Hamas said in a statement.

A source had earlier said Israel was staying away from the Cairo talks because Hamas refused to provide a list of hostages who are still alive. Hamas says this is impossible without a ceasefire as hostages are scattered across the war zone.

Israeli forces, which began their offensive in Gaza after the deadly Hamas raid on Israel on Oct. 7, have continued bombarding the Palestinian enclave since the talks began in Cairo on Sunday, and the dire humanitarian situation in the densely populated coastal strip has deteriorated further.

"Every day costs us dozens of martyrs [dead]. We want a ceasefire now," Shaban Abdel-Raouf, a Palestinian electrician and father of five from Gaza City, who is now in the southern city of Khan Younis, told Reuters via a chat app.

Health officials in Hamas-run Gaza said the number of people confirmed killed in Israel's offensive had now passed 30,700.

It reported 86 deaths in the past 24 hours and witnesses said the Israeli bombardments continued in parts of Khan Younis, the southern city of Rafah and areas in central Gaza.

FEARS OF CONFLICT SPREADING

A deal is being sought before Ramadan because Palestinian-Israeli violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories often spikes during the fasting month, as does hostility towards Israel in the Arab and Muslim world, creating a strong incentive for leaders to clinch a deal before then.

The United States is also worried that the Gaza conflict could spread further across the Middle East, especially after a series of attacks on vessels in the Red Sea by Iran-aligned Houthi forces acting in solidarity with the Palestinians.

In the latest attack, a merchant vessel was damaged south of Yemen on Wednesday.

The Liberia-registered owner True Confidence Shipping and Greece-based operator Third January Maritime said in a statement that the vessel was on fire and adrift and there was currently no information on the 20 crew and three armed security guards on board.

But a shipping source said three crew members were missing, four others had sustained serious burns, and that the vessel appeared to have been abandoned.

British security firm Ambrey said the Barbados-flagged vessel had been hailed by an entity declaring itself the "Yemeni Navy".

DEAL ON THE TABLE

The deal presented to Hamas for Gaza would free some of the hostages it still holds following the Oct. 7 attack, in which Israel said 1,200 people were killed and 253 abducted.

Aid to Gaza would be increased to try to avert famine as hospitals treat acutely malnourished children, and Hamas would provide a list of all the hostages held in Gaza.

Hamas says any exchange of prisoners cannot take place until after a ceasefire. Israel wants merely a pause in fighting to get hostages out of Gaza and more aid in, and says it will not end the conflict before Hamas is "eliminated".

Senior Hamas official Bassem Naim said the Islamist group had presented its own draft deal and was awaiting a response from Israel, and that "the ball now is in the Americans' court".

The U.S. on Tuesday revised language in a draft U.N. Security Council resolution to back "an immediate ceasefire of roughly six weeks in Gaza together with the release of all hostages", according to the text seen by Reuters.

The new text reflected blunt remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris urging Israel to do more to ease the "humanitarian catastrophe" in Gaza.

Britain's foreign minister David Cameron echoed her comments by saying he would warn visiting Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz on Wednesday that London's patience was running thin over the "dreadful suffering" in Gaza.

Gaza health ministry spokesperson Ashraf Al-Qidra (Hamas) said on Wednesday a girl of 15 had died in a Gaza City hospital from dehydration and malnutrition, describing her as the 18th such victim in just over a week. Reuters could not verify the deaths.

Israel has said it is committed to improving the humanitarian situation in Gaza and that there is no limit on aid for civilians. It has blamed the U.N. for any delivery problems.

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Bassam Masoud

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