Israel-Hamas Hostage Deal Edges Closer Despite Fierce Fighting in Gaza
11:49 JST, November 20, 2023
GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Hamas gunmen battled Israeli forces trying to push into Gaza’s largest refugee camp on Sunday, but despite the fighting U.S. and Israeli officials said a deal to free some of the hostages held in the besieged enclave was edging closer.
About 240 hostages were taken during Hamas’s deadly cross-border rampage into Israel on Oct. 7, which prompted Israel to invade the tiny Palestinian territory to wipe out the Islamist group.
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 Israeli 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 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 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.
U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters on Sunday he was not in a position to say when the hostages might be out. “I want to make sure they’re out and then I’ll tell you,” he said upon arrival at a pre-Thanksgiving holiday event in Virginia with U.S. military personnel.
On Sunday, Qatari Prime Minister Sheik 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 remaining.
A White House official also said the “very complicated, very sensitive” negotiations were making progress.
DEATH TOLL ‘STAGGERING AND UNACCEPTABLE’
The talks coincided with Israel preparing to expand its offensive against Hamas to Gaza’s southern half, signaled by increasing air strikes 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 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,” U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, appealing again on Sunday for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.
Witnesses reported heavy fighting overnight between Hamas gunmen and Israeli forces trying to advance into Jabalia, a camp with nearly 100,000 people.
Repeated Israeli bombardment of Jabalia, which grew out of a camp for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, 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 south “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” expired, 11 Palestinians in Jabalia were killed by an Israeli air strike on a house, the enclave’s health ministry said.
Palestinians say Israel’s repeated bombardment of southern Gaza renders Israeli promises of safety absurd.
Around 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, were killed in Hamas’s shock Oct. 7 assault, according to Israeli tallies, the deadliest day in the country’s 75-year history.
A total of 64 Israeli soldiers have died in the conflict, according to the latest army count.
‘DEATH ZONE’ AT GAZA’S BIGGEST HOSPITAL
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.
A team led by the World Health Organization that visited Al Shifa, Gaza’s biggest hospital, on Saturday 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.
Israeli military issued a statement on Sunday in response saying it was conducting “a precise operation to uncover terror infrastructure” at the hospital.
On Sunday, 31 premature babies were evacuated from Al Shifa in a joint operation by the United Nations and Palestinian Red Crescent to be taken over the Rafah border crossing for hospitalization in Egypt, 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.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said 48 journalists and media workers have been confirmed killed in the region since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, including the head of a prominent media institution in Gaza and two other journalists.
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