Mediator says talks on Gaza not 'progressing as expected' after momentum in recent weeks


RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Talks on a potential cease-fire deal in Gaza “have not been progressing as expected” in the past few days after good progress in recent weeks, key mediator Qatar said Saturday, as Israel's prime minister accused the Hamas militant group of not changing its ”delusional" demands.

Speaking during the Munich Security Conference, Qatar's prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdurrahman Al Thani, noted difficulties in the “humanitarian part” of the negotiations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is under pressure to bring home the remaining hostages taken in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, said he sent a delegation to cease-fire talks in Cairo earlier in the week at U.S. President Joe Biden’s request but doesn't see the point in sending them again.

Hamas wants a permanent cease-fire in Gaza and the release of Palestinians held by Israel.

Netanyahu also pushed back against international concern about a planned Israeli ground offensive in Rafah, a city on southern Gaza's border with Egypt. He said “total victory” against Hamas requires the offensive, once people living there evacuate to safe areas. Where they will go in largely devastated Gaza is not clear.

Israel’s air and ground offensive was triggered by the Oct. 7 attack that killed some 1,200 people in Israel and took 250 others hostage.

The Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry on Saturday raised the overall death toll in Gaza to 28,858. The count does not differentiate between combatants and civilians.

The war also has caused widespread destruction, displaced some 80% of Gaza's population and sparked a humanitarian crisis in the Hamas-run enclave.

More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are packed into Rafah, which Israel portrays as the last significant stronghold of Hamas fighters.

Israel has said it has no plans to force Palestinians into Egypt. New satellite photos, however, indicate that Egypt is preparing for that scenario. The images show Egypt building a wall and leveling land near its border with Gaza.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who also spoke at the Munich Security Conference, said “it is not our intention to provide any safe areas or facilities, but … we will provide the support to the innocent civilians, if that was to take place.”

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi affirmed during a call with France’s leader that Egypt categorically rejected “the displacement of Palestinians to Egypt in any way, shape or form," according to el-Sisi's office.

Two senior Egyptian officials said Egypt is building additional defensive lines in an existing buffer zone that extends 3 miles from the border. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details with the media.

The buffer zone, built as part of Egypt's battle against an Islamic State group insurgency, was meant to prevent weapons smuggling to and from Gaza.

In recent weeks, Israel's military has focused on Khan Younis, Gaza’s second-largest city and a Hamas stronghold.

The army said Saturday that it had arrested 100 suspected Hamas militants at the city's Nasser Hospital. Israel's defense minister has said at least 20 of those detained were involved in the Oct. 7 attack.

The Health Ministry said troops turned the hospital into “military barracks" and detained a large number of medical staff.