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JEDDAH: Israel on Friday sent a delegation to Qatar for new talks on a Gaza ceasefire despite dismissing the latest proposal from Hamas as “unrealistic.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also approved a plan for a military offensive on Rafah, the city on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip where up to 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering.

Negotiators failed last week to reach a ceasefire deal in time for Ramadan, but mediators are still determined to reach an agreement to head off the Israeli assault on Rafah and allow the delivery of humanitarian aid to stave off mass starvation.

Even the US, Israel’s closest ally, has pleaded with it not to attack Rafah because it would cause a humanitarian catastrophe. Israel claims it will move people to safety first.

More than two weeks after receiving an Israeli-approved proposal for a truce, Hamas replied with a counter proposal of a six-week truce to allow aid in, and a prisoner-hostage swap at a ratio of up to 50 Palestinian prisoners for every Israeli hostage. It also calls for talks at a later stage on ending the war completely.

Analysts noted a change in Israel’s language in rejecting the new Hamas offer. Netanyahu dismissed last month’s proposal from the militant group as “completely delusional” and “from another planet,” while the most recent one was merely “unrealistic.”

Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said Israel’s rejection showed that Netanyahu was “determined to pursue the aggression against our people and undermine all efforts exerted to reach a ceasefire agreement.” Washington should push its ally to accept a truce, he said.

Meanwhile the first ship bringing aid by sea, the Open Arms, arrived off the Gaza coast on Friday towing a barge containing 200 tonnes of food. The charity World Central Kitchen aims to land the cargo using a temporary jetty, although humanitarian agencies say aid delivered by sea or air is inadequate and Israel must stop blocking land deliveries by truck.

If the new sea route is successful, it may ease the hunger crisis affecting Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of people face malnourishment and hospitals in the worst-stricken northern areas have reported children dying of starvation.

The UN says all of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are suffering from food shortages and a quarter of them are on the brink of famine, especially in the north.

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