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    Signs that cease-fire could finally be near

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    White House Special Envoy Brett McGurk was in Israel on Thursday to breathe life into talks aimed at a cease-fire and release of militant-held hostages while also trying to dissuade Israeli leaders from a ground invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

    The visit comes as senior officials on both sides of the war suggested a breakthrough could be near.

    McGurk was to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and other top officials. Efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the U.S. to broker a cease-fire deal have proved futile since the weeklong November pause in fighting that allowed for release of more than 100 hostages. Netanyahu even refused to send a delegation to Cairo for talks, citing “delusional” demands from Hamas.

    But late Wednesday, influential war Cabinet minister Benny Gantz provided some hope, saying “initial signs that indicate the possibility of moving forward” on the framework for a deal. And senior Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzouk told Egypt’ian’s Al-Ghad channel that a breakthrough might soon be possible.

    White House National Security spokesman John Kirby said this week that McGurk would also reiterate U.S. concerns about a major ground offensive in Rafah “without due appreciation for and planning for, in a credible way, the safety and security of the more than million people that are down there.” 

    Developments:

    ∎ Yemen’s Houthi rebels announced a “ban” on ships owned or flagged by Israeli, U.S. and Britain transiting through the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Arabian Sea. The Houthis have been attacking ships flagged by those and other countries since November.

    ∎ Protesters blocking the Kerem Shalom Crossing between Gaza and Egypt clashed with Israeli security forces, Hebrew media reported. Right-wing activists at Kerem Shalom oppose supplying humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip until all hostages are released.

    An Israeli man was killed and at least 10 people were wounded when three Palestinian gunmen opened fire at a checkpoint between the West Bank settlement city of Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem, Israeli police said. The gunman were killed. National Security Minister Iramar Ben Gvir said the shooting was further proof that Israelis must be armed and that movement must be limited for Palestinians in the West Bank. He called for more barriers and closing of roads. His calls for a crackdown came as the world community overwhelmingly urges Israel to end its occupation.

    “If it weren’t for those weapons, the terrorists would have continued their murderous spree unhindered,” Gvir said on social media. “The freedom of life of the citizens of Israel prevails over the freedom of movement of the residents of (Palestinians)!”

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