Israel expands Gaza ops; hostage deal nears ‘close’




The Manila Times

Americas And Emea

PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES: Israeli troops were “expanding” their operation in the Gaza Strip on Monday as Qatari mediators said they were inching closer to a deal to free some of the 240 hostages held by Hamas militants. Israel has warned residents of Gaza’s largest refugee camp Jabalia and a nearby coastal camp to evacuate, as the military said on Sunday it was “expanding its operational activities in additional neighborhoods ... of the Gaza Strip.” After intense bombardment, an Agence France-Presse (AFP) journalist in Gaza saw columns of smoke rising from Jabalia on Sunday. A Hamas health official said more than 80 people were killed in twin strikes on Jabalia last Saturday, including at a United Nations school sheltering displaced people. Social media videos verified by AFP showed bodies covered in blood and dust on the floor of a building, where mattresses had been wedged under school tables. Israel’s military has said Jabalia is among the areas of focus as they “target terrorists and strike Hamas infrastructure.” Without mentioning the strikes, the Israeli army said “an incident in the Jabalia region” was under review. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk on Sunday condemned the purported strike on the school as “horrifying,” and said “the horrendous events of the past 48 hours in Gaza beggar belief.” On Monday, Palestinian news agency Wafa said the Indonesian hospital near Jabalia had also come under shelling. Israel launched its offensive against Hamas after a wave of brutal cross-border raids on October 7 left 1,200 people dead, the majority of them civilians. The Hamas government says the death toll from Israel’s aerial bombardment and ground operations in Gaza has reached 13,000, thousands of them children. Urgent action Six weeks into the war, Israel is facing intense international pressure to justify its bloody toll. Israel officials have warned that a “window of legitimacy” for the war to rout Hamas may be closing. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Monday called for urgent action to stop the “humanitarian disaster” unfolding in Gaza. “The situation in Gaza affects all countries around the world, questioning the human sense of right and wrong and humanity’s bottom line,” Wang told visiting diplomats from Arab and Muslimmajority nations. Israel on Sunday presented what it said was evidence Hamas gunmen used the Al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest medical facility, to hide foreign hostages and to mask underground tunnels. The Israeli military released what was said to be closed-circuit television footage from October 7 of two male hostages from Nepal and Thailand being brought into the hospital. “We have not yet located both of these hostages,” army spokesman Daniel Hagari told reporters. One clip showed a man in shorts and a pale blue shirt being dragged into an entrance hall by five men, at least three of whom were armed. In a second clip, an injured man in his underwear is wheeled in on a gurney by armed men as several others wearing blue hospital scrubs look on. AFP could not immediately verify the footage. Israel also accused the Palestinian militant group of executing 19-year-old Israeli soldier Noa Marciano at Al-Shifa and presented images of what it said was a 55-meter-long underground tunnel under the hospital. Israel has repeatedly claimed that Al-Shifa doubles as a base for Palestinian militants — a charge Hamas and hospital administrators deny. The World Health Organization has called the hospital a “death zone.” Inching closer On Sunday, Qatari mediators said they were inching closer to a deal to free some of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said efforts to bring hostages “safely back to their homes” in return for a temporary ceasefire were now within reach, raising hopes that Israeli, Nepali, American, or other captives could soon be free. “I’m now more confident that we are close enough to reach a deal,” said the premier, adding that only “minor” practical details remained unresolved. The hostages include infants, teenagers and pensioners. Their fate has racked not just their families, but the Israeli public at large. United States deputy national security adviser Jon Finer told US media that negotiators were “closer than we have been in quite some time” to securing a deal. But he added: “The mantra that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed really does apply.”