Hamas battles Israeli forces in north Gaza, amid hopes of hostage deal

  • US says ceasefire deal not yet as UN calls for immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza
  • WHO describes Al Shifa Hospital as ‘death zone,’ saying situation is ‘desperate’ with hospital basically not functioning due to lack of facilities
  • Qatari PM claims obstacles to a deal ‘very minor,’ with mainly ‘practical and logistical’ issues to surmount

JERUSALEM/ GAZA: Hamas gunmen battled Israeli forces trying to push into Gaza’s largest refugee camp on Sunday and at least 11 Palestinians 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 US 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 US 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 Israel on Oct. 7, which prompted Israel to besiege and invade the tiny Palestinian territory to wipe out its ruling Islamist group after several inconclusive wars since 2007.

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 obstacles to a deal were now “very minor”, with mainly “practical and logistical” issues to surmount.

The delicate hostage talks coincide with Israel preparing to expand its offensive against Hamas to Gaza’s southern half, signalled by increasing air strikes there on targets Israel sees as lairs of armed fighters.

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 traumatised 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.

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.

Heavy fighting in North Gaza

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 fighters are waging guerrilla-style war in pockets of the densely urbanised north, including parts of Gaza City and the sprawling Jabalia and Beach refugee camps.

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 fighters dug into the area.

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.

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.

Gaza’s Health Ministry raised its death toll from Israeli bombardments to 12,300, including 5,000 children.

Gaza’s Al Shifa Hospital turned into ‘death zone’, WHO says

A humanitarian assessment team visited Al Shifa Hospital in northern Gaza and saw signs of shelling and gunfire in what was described as a “death zone,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Sunday.

The WHO-led team, which included public health experts, logistics officers and security staff from various U.N. departments, was able to spend only an hour inside the hospital on Saturday due to security concerns, WHO said in a statement.

The team described the hospital as a “death zone” and said the situation was “desperate,” with the hospital basically not functioning as a medical facility due to scarcity of clean water, fuel, medicine and other essentials.

“Signs of shelling and gunfire were evident. The team saw a mass grave at the entrance of the hospital and were told more than 80 people were buried there,” the WHO statement said.

The hallways and hospital grounds were filled with medical and solid waste, and patients and health staff expressed fear for their health and safety, it said. There were 25 health workers and 291 patients, including 32 babies in critical condition, remaining in Al Shifa, WHO said.

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 hospitalisation 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.

“WHO and partners are urgently developing plans for the immediate evacuation of the remaining patients, staff and their families,” it said.

“Over the next 24–72 hours, pending guarantees of safe passage by parties to the conflict, additional missions are being arranged to urgently transport patients” to other hospitals in the south of Gaza.

The Israeli military did not immediately comment on the WHO statement or the visit.

The remaining 2,500 internally displaced people who had sought refuge on Al Shifa grounds were gone after the Israeli Defense Forces issued evacuation orders on Saturday, WHO said.

Israeli forces seized Al Shifa in their offensive across north Gaza last week, saying it concealed an underground Hamas command centre. The military said it found evidence of a Hamas base underground. Al Shifa staff say Israel has proven no such thing.

The visit was coordinated with the Israeli military to reduce risks but occurred in an active conflict zone, with heavy fighting close to the hospital, WHO said.

WHO repeated its call for an immediate ceasefire and sustained humanitarian assistance, saying options for medical care in the small coastal enclave were dwindling.


Israeli air strikes, Hamas ambush

Palestinians mourn local journalists Hassouna Sleem and Sary Mansour, who were killed in an Israeli strike on a house, at a hospital in the central Gaza Strip November 19, 2023. PHOTO: REUTERS

Palestinians mourn local journalists Hassouna Sleem and Sary Mansour, who were killed in an Israeli strike on a house, at a hospital in the central Gaza Strip November 19, 2023. PHOTO: REUTERS

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 fighters 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 62 Israeli soldiers have died in the conflict, according to the latest army count.



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