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Egypt launches plan to end war between Israel and Hamas. The proposal receives a warm welcome

CAIRO — CAIRO (AP) — Israel and Hamas gave a cool public reception Monday to an Egyptian proposal to end their bitter war. But the longtime enemies stopped short of rejecting the plan altogether, raising the possibility of a new round of diplomacy to end a devastating Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip.

The Egyptian plan calls for a gradual release of hostages and the formation of a Palestinian government of experts to administer the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank, according to a senior Egyptian official and a European diplomat familiar with the proposal.

The Egyptian official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the proposal, said details had been worked out with Gulf country Qatar and presented to Israel, Hamas, the United States and European governments. . Egypt and Qatar both serve as intermediaries between Israel and Hamas, while the United States is Israel’s closest ally and a key power in the region.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not commented directly on the proposal. But speaking to members of his Likud party, he said he was determined to continue the Israeli offensive, launched in response to the Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7, which killed 1,200 people and took 240 others hostage.

“We are expanding the fight in the coming days and it will be a long battle and it is not close to being over,” he said.

Hamas continued to fire rockets at Israel throughout the fighting. On Monday evening, it launched a barrage of rockets, setting off air raid sirens in the southern city of Ashkelon. AP video shows what appear to be multiple intercepts by Israel’s rocket defense system. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.

The Egyptian proposal falls far short of Israel’s stated goal of crushing Hamas. It also appears at odds with Israel’s insistence on maintaining military control over Gaza for a prolonged period after the war.

But Netanyahu faces intense domestic pressure to reach a deal to bring home more than 100 Israeli hostages remaining in Gaza captivity.

As he promised to continue the war during a speech in Parliament, relatives of the hostages interrupted him and demanded their immediate return. “Now! Now!” they shouted.

The growing number of Israeli soldiers killed in ground operations also threatens to undermine public support for the war. The Israeli army announced the deaths of two additional soldiers on Monday, bringing the total number of deaths in the war to 156.

Netanyahu’s war cabinet was scheduled to meet Monday evening. It was unclear whether they would discuss the Egyptian proposal.

Hamas has not officially reacted to this proposal. But it is unclear whether Hamas would agree to relinquish power after controlling Gaza for the past 16 years.

Izzat Rishq, a senior Hamas official believed to be based in Qatar, issued a statement reiterating the group’s position that it will not negotiate without “a complete end to aggression.” He said Hamas would not accept a “temporary or partial truce for a short period.”

The proposal was announced as Israeli airstrikes heavily hit central and southern Gaza.

In the Maghazi refugee camp on Monday, rescuers were still removing bodies from the rubble of a strike the night before. Records from nearby Al-Aqsa Hospital seen by The Associated Press show at least 106 people were killed, making it one of the deadliest strikes in the Israeli air campaign.

The United Nations World Health Organization visited the hospital on Monday, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

“The hospital is seeing far more patients than its bed capacity and staff can handle. Many will not survive the wait,” he said in a message on X, formerly Twitter.

The war has devastated large parts of Gaza, killed more than 20,600 Palestinians and displaced almost all of the territory’s 2.3 million residents.

UN officials have warned that a quarter of the population is starving due to Israel’s siege of the territory, which allows only a trickle of supplies.

In the southern Gaza Strip, Hamas admitted to shooting dead a 13-year-old boy who was part of a group of people trying to seize aid from a truck. The shooting sparked violent protests and rare public criticism of Hamas.

The Egyptian proposal is an ambitious attempt not only to end the war, but also to develop a plan for the next day.

It calls for an initial ceasefire lasting up to two weeks, during which Palestinian militants would release 40 to 50 hostages, including women, the sick and the elderly, in exchange for the release of 120 to 150 Palestinians from Israeli prisons, Egypt said. an official said.

At the same time, negotiations will continue on extending the ceasefire and releasing more hostages and bodies held by Palestinian militants, he said. Israeli officials estimate that 20 of the hostages died or were killed in captivity.

Egypt and Qatar will also work with all Palestinian factions, including Hamas and the rival, internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, to agree on the creation of a government of experts, he said.

The government would rule Gaza and the West Bank during a transition period while Palestinian factions prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections, he added.

In the meantime, Israel and Hamas will negotiate a comprehensive “all-things-for-all” deal, he said. This would involve the release of all remaining hostages in exchange for all Palestinian prisoners in Israel, as well as the withdrawal of the Israeli army from Gaza and a cessation of rocket fire into Israel by Palestinian militants.

More than 8,000 Palestinians are detained by Israel on security-related charges or convictions, according to Palestinian figures. Some have been convicted of deadly attacks against Israelis. Although their release would be controversial, Israel has a history of accepting unbalanced releases.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry spoke by telephone on Monday with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian about the war in Gaza, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said. The statement said Shoukry discussed efforts to achieve a comprehensive ceasefire. He did not provide further details. Iran is a major supporter of Hamas.

In Washington, the White House refused to comment on the Egyptian proposal.

U.S. officials remain in close contact with Egypt and Qatar to secure the release of other hostages and several proposals have been floated, according to a person familiar with the negotiations. Although the Egyptian proposal is seen as a positive sign, the United States is skeptical about its outcome, the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

The Israeli offensive was one of the most devastating military campaigns in recent history. More than two-thirds of the 20,674 Palestinians killed were women and children, according to Gaza’s health ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and fighters among the dead.

The offensive has led to a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, with shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities.

With aid shipments limited, crowds attempted to seize some of the goods arriving by trucks. Hamas gunmen were seen atop some vehicles. The group claims to protect shipments, while Israel accuses it of stealing aid.

In the southern Gaza Strip, Hamas admitted that a police officer from the Hamas-run Interior Ministry shot and killed a 13-year-old boy, saying the shots were fired while a group of people were trying to collect aid from a truck near the town of Rafah. Sunday, an official from the Hamas government’s media office said Monday.

The shooting sparked violent protest and rare public criticism of Hamas, which has shown little tolerance for dissent during its tenure.

Enraged, relatives of the murdered boy, Ahmed Brikeh, attempted to attack a police station, burning tires and demanding that the officer be held accountable.

A relative, Mosaad Brikeh, blamed Hamas for the killing in video comments posted on social media, accusing the police officer of shooting the boy “directly in the head.”

He said the family had previously cooperated with Hamas to secure the border area with Egypt. He called for the officer to be held accountable, warning that the family would prevent “any vehicle” from passing through the area.

The devastation of the war in recent weeks has caused sporadic eruptions of anger against Hamas, something previously unthinkable during the group’s 16-year rule over Gaza.

Israel faces international criticism for its civilian casualty toll. He blames Hamas, citing the militants’ use of crowded residential areas and tunnels. Israel claims to have killed thousands of Hamas militants, without presenting evidence.

On Monday evening, the Israeli army said it had discovered the stolen car of the family of an Israeli hostage, Samer Al-Talalka, at a hospital in northern Gaza. Al-Talalka was among three hostages mistakenly shot dead by Israeli soldiers in Gaza earlier this month.

The military said grenade fragments and bloodstains from another hostage were found in the vehicle. “The discovery of the vehicle directly links the hospital to the brutal events of October 7,” the statement said.

Dozens of members of Gaza’s small Christian community celebrated Christmas Eve at the Holy Family Church in Gaza City, which they also use as a shelter. Last week, Catholic officials said two Christian women were killed by Israeli sniper fire at the compound.

“It’s not a celebration,” said Kamal Ayad, whose wife and daughter were killed in the shooting. “It is a celebration of sorrow for the Palestinian people.”

He said his only wish was “peace and the hope of a ceasefire.”

The service took place Sunday evening, but details were not revealed until Monday due to frequent internet outages.

Bethlehem was silent for Christmas and its celebrations were canceled.

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Jobain reported from Rafah in the Gaza Strip and Federman from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Kareem Chehayeb contributed reporting from Beirut.

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