Hamas gunmen battled Israeli forces trying to push into Gaza’s largest refugee camp on Sunday, but despite the fighting US and Israeli officials said a deal to free some of the hostages being held in the besieged enclave was edging closer.
About 240 hostages were taken during Hamas’ deadly cross-border rampage into Israel on October 7, which prompted Israel to invade the tiny Palestinian territory to wipe out its ruling group after several inconclusive wars since 2007.
Israeli tanks and troops stormed into Gaza late last month and have since wrested control of large areas of the north and northwest and east around Gaza City, the military says.
But Hamas and local witnesses say militants are waging guerrilla-style war in pockets of the densely urbanized north, including parts of Gaza City and the sprawling Jabalia and Beach refugee camps.
Even as fighting raged on the ground, 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.”
Reuters reported on November 15 that Qatari mediators had been seeking a deal between Israel and Hamas to exchange 50 hostages in return for a three-day ceasefire that would help boost emergency aid shipments to Gaza civilians, 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 obstacles to a deal were now “very minor,” with mainly “practical and logistical” issues to surmount.
A White House official also said the “very complicated, very sensitive” negotiations were making progress.
“I believe we are closer than we have been in quite some time, maybe closer than we have been since the beginning of this process, to getting this deal done,” White House deputy national security adviser Jon Finer told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Death toll ‘staggering and unacceptable’
The delicate hostage talks coincide with Israel preparing to expand its offensive against Hamas to Gaza’s southern half, signaled by increasing airstrikes there on targets Israel sees as lairs of armed militants.
However, Israel’s main ally the United States cautioned it on Sunday not to embark on combat operations in the south until military planners have taken into account the safety of fleeing Palestinian civilians.
Gaza’s traumatized population has been on the move since the start of the war, sheltering in hospitals or trudging from the north to the south and, in some cases, back again, in desperate efforts to stay out of the line of fire.
Gaza’s Hamas-run government said at least 13,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli bombardments since then, including at least 5,500 children.
The civilian death toll in Gaza was “staggering and unacceptable,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Sunday, again appealing for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.
Witnesses reported heavy fighting overnight on Sunday between Hamas gunmen and Israeli forces trying to advance into Jabalia, the largest of Gaza’s camps with nearly 100,000 people.
Jabalia, a poor and crowded district that grew out of a camp for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, has come under repeated Israeli bombardment that has killed scores of civilians, Palestinian medics say. Israel says the strikes have killed many militants dug into the area.
Via social media in Arabic, Israel’s military on Sunday urged residents of several Jabalia neighborhoods 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 airstrike on a house, the enclave’s health ministry said.
The south has also been repeatedly bombarded by Israel, rendering Israeli promises of safety absurd, say Palestinians.
Around 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, were killed in Hamas’ shock October 7 assault, according to Israeli tallies, the deadliest day in the country’s 75-year history.
Israeli airstrikes, Hamas ambush
In the center of the narrow coastal enclave, Palestinian medics said 31 people were killed, including two local journalists, in Israeli airstrikes targeting a number of houses in the Bureij and Nusseirat refugee camps late on Saturday. Another airstrike 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 centers, weapons caches, rocket launchpads and a vast underground tunnel network. The Islamist movement denies using human shields to wage war.
Hamas’ 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.
A total of 64 Israeli soldiers have died in the conflict, according to the latest army count.
‘Death zone’ at Gaza’s biggest hospital
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 center.
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 UN and Palestinian Red Crescent and will be taken over the southern Rafah border crossing to Egypt for hospitalization there, Gaza’s health ministry said.
Eight premature babies previously died at Al-Shifa for lack of electricity and medication 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.