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.
According to fresh reports, 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.
Hamas had taken about 240 hostages during its deadly cross-border rampage into Israel on October 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.
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.
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.
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 guerrillastyle 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.