Talks over the past weeks have centered on a swap of some of the estimated 240 people.
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s Cabinet was to convene Tuesday to consider a possible deal for the release of some of the hostages held by Hamas, as troops battled Palestinian militants in an urban refugee camp in northern Gaza and around hospitals overcrowded with patients and sheltering families.
Details of any deal, worked out through international mediators, were not immediately known. Talks over the past weeks have centered on a swap of some of the estimated 240 people taken hostage by Hamas in its Oct. 7 attack into Israel for Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, accompanied by a temporary cease-fire in Gaza.
Hamas has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada and the European Union.
Senior Hamas officials said an agreement was near. But talks have repeatedly stalled and past predictions of a breakthrough proved premature. Israel announced that its War Cabinet, and then the full Cabinet – whose approval is needed on any deal – would convene Tuesday evening to discuss “the issue of the release of hostages.”
Commenting on the return of hostages, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday, “We are currently advancing. I do not think that it is necessary to belabor the point, not even now, but I hope there will be good news soon.”
Inside Gaza, the front line of the war, now in its seventh week, shifted to the Jabaliya refugee camp, a dense warren of concrete buildings near Gaza City that houses families displaced in the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation. Israel has bombarded the area for weeks, and the military said Hamas fighters have regrouped there and in other eastern districts after being pushed out of much of Gaza City.
The fighting in Jabaliya raged around two nearby hospitals, trapping hundreds of patients and displaced people sheltering inside with dwindling supplies. A strike Tuesday hit inside one of the facilities, al-Awda, killing four people, including three doctors, the hospital director told Al-Jazeera TV. The director, Ahmed Mahna, blamed the strike on Israel, a claim that the Associated Press could not independently confirm.
In southern Lebanon, an Israeli strike killed two journalists with Al-Mayadeen TV, according to the Pan-Arab network and Lebanese officials. There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military. A separate Israeli drone strike in Lebanon killed four Hamas members, a Palestinian official and a Lebanon security official said.
The Israeli military has been trading fire almost daily across the border with Lebanon’s Hezbollah group and Palestinian militants since the outbreak of the war.
DIRE CONDITIONS IN NORTH AND SOUTH
The war has exacted a heavy toll on Palestinian civilians, particularly those who remain in the north after Israel repeatedly called on people to flee south.
It’s unclear how many stayed behind, but the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees estimates that some 160,000 people are still in its shelters there, even though it is no longer able to provide services. Some 1.7 million Palestinians, about three-fourths of Gaza’s population, have fled their homes, many packing into U.N.-run schools and other facilities across the territory’s south.
As shelters have overflowed, people have been forced to sleep on the streets outside, even as winter rains have pelted the coastal enclave in recent days. There are shortages of food, water and fuel for generators across all of Gaza, which has had no central electricity for over a month.
Israel continues to strike what it says are militant targets throughout Gaza, including in the southern evacuation zone, often killing women and children, and officials have indicated it may soon expand its operations in the south.
FIGHTING IN JABALIYA AND AROUND HOSPITALS
Israel’s military said forces are “preparing the battlefield” in the area of Jabaliya, saying they struck three tunnel shafts where fighters were hiding and destroyed rocket launchers. Footage released by the military showed Israeli soldiers patrolling on foot as gunfire echoed around them.
Residents said there had been heavy fighting as Israeli forces tried to advance under the cover of airstrikes. “The (Israeli) occupation is trying to besiege the camp,” said Hamza Abu Mansour, a university student. “They are facing stiff resistance.”
It was not possible to independently confirm details of the fighting.
In the face of airstrikes and advancing Israeli troops, tens of thousands of Palestinians in the north had sheltered in hospitals, but those have steadily been emptied as the fighting reached their gates, and most are no longer operational.
The hospital situation in Gaza is “catastrophic,” Michael Ryan, a senior World Health Organization official, said Monday. In the north, “it is the worst you can imagine.”
Munir al-Boursh, a senior Health Ministry official who said he was inside the Indonesian Hospital, also near Jabaliya, told Al-Jazeera television by phone that Israeli forces had besieged it, forcing health workers to bury 50 bodies in the courtyard. There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military.
Palestinian officials said an Israeli shell struck the hospital on Monday, killing 12 people. Israel denied shelling the hospital, but said its troops returned fire on militants who targeted them from inside.
Up to 600 wounded people and some 2,000 displaced Palestinians remain stranded at the hospital, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.
A similar standoff played out in recent days at Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest, where over 250 patients and medical workers are stranded after the evacuation of 31 premature babies.
Israel has provided evidence in recent days of a militant presence at Shifa. But it has yet to substantiate its claims that Hamas had a major command center beneath the facility, allegations denied by Hamas and hospital staff.
More than 12,700 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in the West Bank. Officials there say another 4,000 are missing. Their counts do not differentiate between civilians and combatants. Israel says it has killed thousands of militants.
The ministry bases its count on information gathered by its counterpart in Hamas-ruled Gaza, which has been unable to fully update casualty figures for more than 10 days because of the breakdown in services and communications in the north.
About 1,200 people have been killed on the Israeli side, mainly civilians during the Oct. 7 attack. The military says 68 Israeli soldiers have been killed in Gaza ground operations.
TALKS ON HOSTAGES
Israel, the United States and Qatar, which mediates with Hamas, have negotiated for weeks over a hostage release that would be paired with a temporary cease-fire and the entry of more aid.
Izzat Rishq, a senior Hamas official, said Tuesday that an agreement could be reached “in the coming hours,” in which Hamas would release captives and Israel would release Palestinian prisoners. Hamas’ leader-in-exile, Ismail Haniyeh, also said they were close to a deal.
Israel’s war Cabinet met with representatives of the hostages’ families Monday evening. Netanyahu told families the government considers the release of hostages and the defeat of Hamas to be equally important, according to a relative who attended.
Udi Goren, whose cousin Tal Chaimi is in captivity in Gaza, said that was “incredibly disappointing,” as Israel has said it could take months to dismantle the militant group.
Jeffery reported from Cairo Associated Press writers Wafaa Shurafa in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip; Samy Magdy in Cairo; and Melanie Lidman in Jerusalem contributed.