Hamas gunmen battled Israeli forces trying to push into Gaza’s largest refugee camp on Sunday and at least 11 people were killed by an Israeli air strike on a house, medics said, as hopes rose of a deal to free some hostages from the enclave.
The Washington Post said on Sunday that U.S. mediators were close to a deal between Israel and Hamas to free dozens of women and children held hostage in Gaza in exchange for a five-day pause in their war that would help boost emergency aid shipments to Gaza civilians, citing people familiar with the matter.
The Post had reported on Saturday that a tentative deal had been reached, but this was denied by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. officials, with a White House spokesperson saying efforts were continuing to clinch a deal.
On Sunday, however, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Michael Herzog said in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” that Israel was hopeful a significant number of hostages could be released by Hamas “in coming days”.
Hamas took about 240 hostages during its deadly cross-border rampage into Israeli communities on Oct. 7, which prompted Israel to lay siege to Gaza and invade the Palestinian territory to eradicate its ruling Islamist group.
Reuters reported on Nov. 15 that Qatari mediators had been seeking a deal between Israel and Hamas to exchange 50 hostages in return for a three-day ceasefire, citing an official briefed on the talks. At the time, the official said general outlines had been agreed but Israel was still negotiating details.
On Sunday, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani told a press conference in Doha that the main sticking points blocking a hostage release deal were now “very minor” – mainly practical and logistical issues.
The delicate hostage talks coincide with Israel preparing to expand its offensive against Hamas to densely populated Gaza’s southern half, signalled by increasing air strikes there on targets Israel sees as lairs of armed militants.
Israeli tanks and troops stormed into Gaza late last month after a devastating aerial blitz in response to Hamas’s shock Oct. 7 attack, and say they have wrested control of large areas of the north and northwest and east around Gaza City.
But guerrilla-style Hamas resistance remains fierce in pockets of the heavily urbanized north, including parts of Gaza City and the sprawling Jabalia and Beach refugee camps, according to Hamas and local witnesses.
Witnesses reported heavy fighting overnight between Hamas gunmen and Israeli ground forces trying to advance into Jabalia, the largest of the enclave’s camps with nearly 100,000 people.
Jabalia has come under repeated Israeli bombardment that has killed scores of civilians, Palestinian medics say. Israel says the strikes have killed many militants sheltering there.
Via social media in Arabic, Israel’s military on Sunday urged residents of several Jabalia neighbourhoods to evacuate towards south Gaza “to preserve your safety” and to that end said it would pause military action from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
After the “pause” period expired, 11 Palestinians in Jabalia were killed by an Israeli air strike on a house, the enclave’s health ministry said.
Most of Jabalia’s inhabitants rejected previous Israeli appeals to clear out to the south of the narrow coastal enclave.
The south has also been repeatedly bombarded by Israel, rendering Israeli promises of safety absurd, Palestinians say.
After several inconclusive wars since 2007, Israel vowed to destroy Hamas after its Oct. 7 attack in which around 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, were killed, according to Israeli tallies, the deadliest day in the country’s 75-year history.
Gaza’s Health Ministry raised its death toll from the unrelenting Israeli bombardment to 12,300, including 5,000 children.
In the centre of the narrow coastal enclave, Palestinian medics said 31 people were killed, including two local journalists, in Israeli air strikes targeting a number of houses in the Bureij and Nusseirat refugee camps late on Saturday night. Another air strike killed a woman and her child overnight in the main southern city of Khan Younis, they said.
In Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, dozens of Palestinians marched to a funeral for 15 residents killed in an Israeli strike on an apartment block on Saturday. “Our youth are dying, women and children are dying, where are the Arab presidents?” wailed Heydaya Asfour, a relative of some of the dead.
The Israeli army says Hamas uses residential and other civilian buildings as cover for command centres, weapons caches, rocket launchpads and a vast underground tunnel network. The Islamist movement denies using human shields to wage war.
Hamas’s armed wing, the Al Qassam Brigades, said militants killed six soldiers at close range in the village of Juhr al-Dik, just east of Gaza City, after ambushing them with an anti-personnel missile and closing in with machine guns.
Seven Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting on Saturday, the military said, without giving details. A total of 62 soldiers have died in fighting, according to army tallies.
A team led by the World Health Organization that visited Al Shifa, Gaza’s biggest hospital, described it as a “death zone”, days after advancing Israeli forces seized the premises to root out an alleged underground Hamas command centre.
The WHO team reported signs of gunfire and shelling and a mass grave at Al Shifa’s entrance, and said it was making plans for the immediate evacuation of 291 remaining patients, including the war-wounded, and 25 staff.
On Sunday, 31 premature babies were evacuated from Al Shifa in a joint operation by the U.N. and Palestinian Red Crescent and would be taken over the southern Rafah border crossing to Egypt for hospitalisation there, Gaza’s health ministry said.
Eight premature babies previously died at Al Shifa for lack of electricity and medications crucial to care, it said.
Hundreds of other patients, staff and displaced people who were sheltering in Al Shifa left on Saturday, with Palestinian health officials saying they were ejected inhumanely by Israeli troops and the military saying the departures were voluntary.
Gaza’s traumatized population has been on the move since the start of the war, sheltering in hospitals or moving from the north to the south and, in some cases, back again, in desperate efforts to stay out of the line of fire.