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 urbanised 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 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 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, signalled 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.