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Israel-Hamas war rages, death toll soars in Gaza, but there's at least hope for new cease-fire talks

Israeli military focused on defeating Hamas
Israeli military focused on defeating Hamas in Gaza's second largest city 02:16

Israel's defense chief has said the war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip is focused on the southern city of Khan Younis, and warned it will take months to achieve the Israeli government's stated goal of destroying the Palestinian militant group. But there was rising hope Wednesday that cease-fire talks could soon be back underway, as Hamas' top political leader arrived in Egypt and Israel indicated it was willing to negotiate another pause in the fighting in exchange for Hamas freeing more hostages.  

Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas' top leader based at its political office in Qatar, arrived Wednesday in Cairo to meet Egypt's spy chief for a discussion on the "aggression in the Gaza Strip and other matters," according to a statement released by Hamas.

Hope for a new Israel-Hamas cease-fire

Sources close to Hamas told CBS News on Wednesday that the group was hoping to secure an agreement for a truce of up to two weeks, which, if it comes to fruition, would be double the length of the cease-fire that saw Hamas free more than 100 hostages at the end of November in exchange for Israel releasing more than 200 Palestinian prisoners. Israeli media reported Wednesday that the government was considering a new week-long truce in exchange for the release of about 40 hostages.

The Washington Post reported, meanwhile, that Israel was considering a pause in the fighting that could be extended for up to two weeks as it looks to enter the next, more focused phase of its war with Hamas, which was sparked by the militant group's brutal Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel.

How Israel's military offensive in Gaza is expected to change 07:19

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the families of the roughly 130 hostages still believed to be captive in Gaza on Tuesday that he'd twice sent the head of the Mossad spy agency to Europe for discussions intended to "free our hostages." The head of Mossad met in Poland Monday with CIA chief William Burns, among other officials.

"It's our duty, I'm responsible for the release of all the hostages," Netanyahu told the families on Tuesday, calling the hostages' rescue "a supreme task" and vowing that he would "spare no effort on the subject, and our duty is to bring them all back."

Pressure mounts as Gaza death toll soars

But with the discussions in Cairo just getting underway, despite mounting pressure from the international community — including a vote now scheduled for Thursday in the U.N. Security Council, which could, if the U.S. doesn't block it again, pass a binding resolution calling for a new halt in the fighting — the prospects for and timing of any new cease-fire remained uncertain.

There have been several sticking points in the U.N. draft resolution, including the proposal to set up a U.N. monitoring mechanism for aid flowing into Gaza, and negotiators told CBS News that an agreement at the Security Council will also depend on whether or not the U.S., Israel and Egypt can agree to a pause in the fighting and the release of additional Israeli hostages.

On the ground in Gaza, meanwhile, the war was still very much on. In the southern city of Khan Younis, where Israel was focusing its battle against Hamas, there was gut-wrenching grief after yet another Israeli missile strike.

The number of Palestinians killed across Gaza since the war started was very near 20,000 on Wednesday, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, including hundreds killed over the past few days alone. 

Israel facing increased pressure over Gaza approach 02:29

Israel insists it is targeting only terrorists, and it accuses Hamas of hiding weapons and fighters in densely-packed civilian neighborhoods, but as the bombs rain down, no one, of any age, is safe. The dead and injured have continued to flood the last functioning hospitals in the south of the Palestinian territory.

"I lost two grandchildren," said Suzan Zourob as she carried the body of an infant. She said the baby was killed in a strike before the new-born's birth could even be registered.

Aftermath of an Israeli strike, in Rafah
Suzan Zourob, the grandmother of two Palestinian children, new-born Al-Amera Ayesha and a young boy Ahmed Zourob, who were both killed in an Israeli strike amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, holds a child's body next to the baby's wounded parents, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, Dec. 19, 2023. IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA /REUTERS

CBS News producer Marwan al-Ghoul witnessed the aftermath of an airstrike that left a massive crater in the ground, and at least 19 people dead. 

"Glass shattered over us," one little girl told CBS News at the scene. "We ran out of our home." 

"What crime have our children done to deserve to be killed?" begged Umm Walid al-Azayza amid the rubble of another Israeli strike on the nearby city of Rafah. "The house fell on us. What is our crime?" 

Israel's military said Wednesday that it struck more than "300 terror targets" in the previous day alone across Gaza, as the war continued into its 75th day.

A Palestinian child wounded in an Israeli strike is rushed into Nasser hospital, in Khan Younis
A Palestinian child wounded in an Israeli strike is rushed into Nasser hospital, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Khan Younis, southern Gaza, Dec. 20, 2023. BASSAM MASOUD/REUTERS

The Israel Defense Forces have said their goal is to dismantle and destroy Hamas, but that rescuing the remaining hostages is also a priority.

Two of the 129 captives still believed to be in Gaza appeared in a new proof-of-life video released late Tuesday by Hamas' ally, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group. It was the second such video released by Palestinian militants in two days, intensifying pressure on Israel to strike a new deal amid rising fear that its military campaign is putting the captives' lives in danger. 

–CBS News correspondent Pamela Falk contributed reporting.

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