Hamas, mediators press on with Gaza truce talks in Israelis' absence

Hamas and Egyptian mediators said on Monday (local time) they were going ahead with talks in Cairo on securing a ceasefire in Gaza, despite Israel's decision not to send a delegation, as Washington pressed again for a truce, the release of hostages and plan to alleviate the humanitarian catastrophe.

The ceasefire talks, which began on Sunday, are billed as a final hurdle on the way to securing the first extended ceasefire of the five-month-old war, in time for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which begins on Sunday.

Israel has declined to comment publicly on the Cairo talks. A source told Reuters it was staying away because Hamas would not provide a list of hostages taken on October 7 who are still alive, information that the Palestinian militants who control Gaza say they will provide only once they have agreed on terms.

"Talks in Cairo continue for the second day, regardless of whether the occupation's delegation is present in Egypt," a Hamas official told Reuters.

Two Egyptian security sources said mediators were in touch with the Israelis, allowing negotiations to continue despite their absence.

A Palestinian source close to the talks said the discussions remained "uneasy", with Israel sticking to its demand for only a temporary truce to free hostages and Hamas seeking assurances that the war would not start up again.

In Washington, President Joe Biden's administration said a temporary ceasefire was essential to a hostage deal and urged Hamas to accept the terms currently on offer.

Harris meets with Netanyahu rival

In a sign of the strain between Washington and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government, Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday hosted Benny Gantz, a longtime Netanyahu political rival who joined his war cabinet in a national unity pact at the war's start.

Netanyahu has not been invited to Washington since returning to office a year ago.

After Harris' meeting with Gantz, the administration said in a statement that Harris had discussed the "urgency" of achieving a hostage deal and "expressed her deep concern about the humanitarian conditions in Gaza".

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters the United States still hoped to conclude a ceasefire-for-hostages deal by the start of Ramadan, but that Hamas had not yet agreed.

"Israel bears a responsibility here to do more," Kirby said, echoing unusually forceful language Harris had used on Sunday.

The proposal being discussed envisions a truce of about 40 days, during which militants would release around 40 of the more than 100 hostages they are still holding in return for some 400 detainees from Israeli jails.

Israel would pull back from some areas, more aid would be allowed into Gaza, and residents would be permitted to return home.

But the deal did not appear to address directly a Hamas demand for a path to a permanent end to the war. Nor does it resolve the fate of more than half the remaining hostages - Israeli men excluded from agreements covering women, children, the elderly and the wounded.

Israel says it will not end the war until Hamas is eradicated. Hamas says it will not free all its hostages without a deal that ends the war.

The Egyptian security sources said mediators were trying to bridge the gap with guarantees to Hamas on future peace talks and to Israel on the safety of hostages.

A Palestinian official close to the negotiations disputed the US contention that Israel had agreed to the deal and Hamas was holding it up, saying this appeared aimed at deflecting blame from Israel should the talks collapse.

Truce could shield Rafah

The war erupted after Hamas fighters burst into Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people and abducting 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.

On Monday, a team of UN experts reported that there were "reasonable grounds to believe" sexual violence, including rape and gang rape, occurred at several locations during the attacks.

"The mission team found clear and convincing information that some hostages taken to Gaza have been subjected to various forms of conflict-related sexual violence and has reasonable grounds to believe that such violence may be ongoing," the report said.

Since October 7, Israel has sealed off the Palestinian enclave, stormed most of its towns and pounded it from the sky. Palestinian authorities say more than 30,000 people have been confirmed killed, with thousands more made homeless. The United Nations says hundreds of thousands face famine.

A Ramadan truce could head off a threatened Israeli assault on Rafah, the town in southern Gaza where more than half the population has taken shelter.

But recent days have been particularly bloody. Authorities said 118 people were killed on Thursday while they were trying to get food for their families from an aid convoy. The incident caused global outrage, and Washington said on Monday it supported a UN investigation.

Residents have described heavy fighting since Saturday just north of Rafah in Khan Younis and Israeli forces have released video showing buildings obliterated in airstrikes.

In Rafah, nightly airstrikes have been killing families in their homes. At least 14 bodies were laid out at a morgue on Monday, one body bag partially unzipped so weeping relatives could stroke a dead child's hair.

"I woke up to people collecting bodies. I don't remember anything," wept Nidal al-Gharib, whose wife was among the dead.

Health officials said another Israeli air strike near a hospital in Khan Younis killed 10 people late on Monday.