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Return of Palestinians to Gaza’s North Emerges as Key Issue in Cease-Fire Talks

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is pressing Israel to permit limited numbers of civilians displaced in the six-month-old Gaza war to return to the northern part of the enclave, a key remaining point of contention in cease-fire and hostage talks, U.S., Israeli and Egyptian officials said.

The White House push to resolve one of the major disagreements between Hamas and Israel highlights the new weight the administration attaches to securing a deal to halt the fighting in Gaza since a deadly Israeli airstrike that killed seven aid workers on Monday.

According to Arab mediators involved in the talks, Israel is open to permitting returns to the north at a rate of 2,000 people a day, mainly women and children. A maximum of 60,000 Palestinians could return under a proposal deemed acceptable by Israel, but they would mostly exclude men between the ages of 18 and 50.

The return of displaced Gazans could begin 10 days to two weeks after a six-week cease-fire is implemented, Arab officials said. They would have to pass through Israeli military checkpoints to prevent armed Hamas militants from re-infiltrating the north where they could resume attacks on Israeli troops, said Israeli and Egyptian officials.

But those terms haven’t been accepted by Hamas, which wants the checkpoints removed and is demanding that families returning to the north remain intact, to prevent Israel from turning away adult males.

“They insist on completely returning to the north,” said an Israeli official familiar with the hostage negotiations. “They want free passage — everyone can go to the north of Gaza and that’s it.

Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns is expected in Cairo for another round of cease-fire and hostage talks this weekend, putting an interlocutor trusted by Biden in a position to offer bridging solutions and cajole the two sides to get to the finish line.

On Friday, Biden sent letters to leaders of Egypt and Qatar, which are mediating the talks along with the U.S., urging them to secure a commitment from Hamas to agree to and honor a deal, a senior Biden administration official said.

President Biden urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to work out the issue of returning Gazans to the north during a phone call Thursday. He also called for an immediate cease-fire and for Netanyahu to empower his negotiators to reach a deal, according to U.S. officials.

For Biden, a cease-fire would help relieve domestic political pressure he is facing from within his own party to compel Israel to change its handling of the war, which has intensified since the drone strike on a World Central Kitchen aid convoy Monday.

A letter to Biden Friday signed by 40 House Democrats called on the administration to withhold offensive arms transfers to Israel until a full investigation into the deaths of the aid workers is completed and responsible parties are held accountable.

The Israeli military said Friday it had dismissed two officers and reprimanded three others involved in the mistaken attack, saying they lacked the evidence to order the attack and violated the military’s operating rules.

But Israeli officials say a pause in fighting must be tied to a release of hostages. More than 120 hostages — among them many who are believed dead — remain in the captivity of Gaza militants, despite months of military operations and negotiations aimed at their release.

On Saturday, the Israeli military said it returned to Israel the body of Elad Katzir, a hostage who was killed in captivity, in a special operation. Israel has so far retrieved the bodies of 12 hostages but has only successfully rescued three alive.

During the tense half-hour call, Biden also said Netanyahu should take immediate steps “to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers” and “made clear that U.S. policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps,” the White House said.

U.S. officials said that a breakthrough in the stop-and-start talks would enable aid to Gaza’s beleaguered population to be greatly expanded. An agreement to permit civilians to return to the north could ease U.S. concerns about an Israeli offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where more than a million civilians have taken refuge along with Hamas militants.

“As Israel pursues any military operations against Hamas, it has to prioritize the protection of civilians. It has to make that job number one,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday. “Their safety has to be a priority, and military operations need to be designed around their protection, not the other way around.”

Israel’s invasion of Gaza followed the attack by the U.S.-designated terrorist group Hamas on southern Israel, which killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, according to Israeli authorities.

Israel’s military response has killed more than 32,000 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to Palestinian health authorities, whose numbers don’t distinguish between militants and civilians.

The negotiations for a cease-fire and hostage release present an array of thorny issues, among them how to ensure that northern Gaza is safe for civilians to return and free of unexploded ordnance.

United Nations and other international experts estimate that 60% of the structures in Gaza are either destroyed or damaged to the point that they are uninhabitable. The situation in northern Gaza is likely worse, they say, and the challenge is compounded by a lack of basic utilities and water.

The provision of adequate shelter for the gradual return of 60,000 residents could be managed with sufficient lead time and the establishment of a secure environment, according to international experts, which would be possible if a cease-fire held.

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