Hamas battles Israeli forces amid hopes of hostage deal
NIDAL AL-MUGHRABI JAMES MACKENZIE
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 airstrike 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 crossborder 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 Nov. 15 that Qatari mediators had been seeking a deal between Israel and Hamas to exchange 50 hostages in return for a threeday 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 airstrikes 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. HEAVY FIGHTING 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 toward 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. 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.