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Israel, Hamas skirmish in Gaza as truce efforts pick up pace

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Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen clashed throughout the Gaza Strip over the weekend, as mediators picked up the pace of talks over a possible ceasefire to free hostages held by Hamas and bring a measure of Ramadan respite to the battered enclave.

Israeli soldiers operate in the Gaza Strip amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in this undated handout picture released on February 24, 2024. Israel Defense Forces/Handout via Reuters

Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen clashed throughout the Gaza Strip over the weekend, as mediators picked up the pace of talks over a possible ceasefire to free hostages held by Hamas and bring a measure of Ramadan respite to the battered enclave.

Prospects for securing any truce looked uncertain, however, with Israel saying it was, in parallel, planning to expand its sweep to destroy Hamas, while the Islamist faction stood firm on its demand for a permanent end to the nearly five-month-old war.

Residents said Israeli forces shelled several areas of the enclave as tanks rolled into Beit Lahiya and soldiers and gunmen waged running battles in the Zeitoun sector of Gaza City - both in the north, which had been conquered early in the offensive.

At least 86 Palestinians were killed in Israeli strikes since Saturday, medics said on Sunday. Israel's military said two soldiers died in fighting in south Gaza and that its forces killed or captured Palestinian gunmen in Zeitoun and elsewhere.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his war cabinet for a briefing late on Saturday by intelligence chiefs who returned from a meeting with Qatari, Egyptian and U.S. mediators in Paris about a possible second Gaza ceasefire.

DOHA TALKS THIS WEEK

Egyptian security sources said there would be more talks this week in Doha, with mediators shuttling between Hamas and Israeli delegates, and a follow-up round in Cairo. There was no immediate confirmation of that from Israel, Hamas or Qatar.

The first pause in fighting, in November, saw the release of around half of the 253 people Hamas seized during an Oct. 7 cross-border killing spree that sparked the war. In that deal, Israel freed three times the number of Palestinians from its security prisons and admitted more humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Israeli media, citing unnamed officials, reported there was a framework for the return of around a third of the 130 remaining hostages over a six-week truce covering the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. There was no formal confirmation from either side.

Palestinian officials said Hamas was insisting on Israel calling off the offensive and withdrawing forces under any deal. Israel signalled intent to move into one of the last towns where Hamas, which is sworn to its destruction, has intact forces.

"We are working to achieve another framework for the release of our abductees, as well as the completion of the elimination of the Hamas battalions in Rafah," Netanyahu said on Facebook, referring to the town in the far south of Gaza near the border with Egypt.

This week, he added, the Israeli security cabinet would approve military plans for Rafah - including the evacuation of more than a million displaced Palestinian civilians who have been sheltering there, and whose fate worries world powers.

By Dan Williams and Nidal al-Mughrabi

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