Palestinian children above the rubble of a building destroyed during Israeli strikes on Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip – Copyright AFP Mohammed ABED
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said Tuesday a truce agreement with Israel was in sight, raising hopes that his militant group could soon release dozens of people taken hostage in the October 7 attacks.
“We are close to reaching a deal on a truce,” Haniyeh said, according to a statement sent by his office to AFP.
For weeks, as the war in Gaza has raged, negotiators have tried to pin down a deal to free some of the estimated 240 hostages held by Palestinian militants.
The majority of the hostages taken during Hamas’s brutal assault last month are Israeli civilians, some of them young children and elderly people.
Only a handful of those taken have been released, freed by Israeli ground troops, or their bodies have been recovered.
The precise whereabouts of the rest are not publicly known, although they are believed to be held in Gaza, where Israel launched a relentless bombing campaign and ground offensive in retaliation for the deadliest attack in its history.
Hamas killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, during its horrific October 7 raids.
According to the Hamas government in Gaza, the war has killed more than 13,300 people, thousands of them children.
Speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, sources from Hamas and Islamic Jihad — a separate Palestinian militant group that also took part in the October 7 attacks — confirmed that their movements had agreed to the terms of a truce deal.
The tentative deal includes a five-day truce, comprised of a ceasefire on the ground and limits to Israeli air operations over southern Gaza.
In return, between 50 and 100 people held by the Palestinian militant groups would be released.
They would include Israeli civilians and people of other nationalities, but no military personnel.
Under the proposed deal, some 300 Palestinians, among them women and children, would also be released from Israeli jails.
On Monday, US President Joe Biden had said he believed a deal to free the hostages was close, as hopes grew for talks brokered by Qatar, where Hamas has a political office and which has behind-the-scenes diplomatic links with Israel.
Separately, the International Committee of the Red Cross said Monday that its president had travelled to Qatar to meet Hamas’s Haniyeh “to advance humanitarian issues related to the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza”.
– ‘We will not stop fighting’ –
As well as spelling the release of hostages, the agreement could bring respite for Gazans who have lived for more than six weeks under Israel bombardment and an expanding ground offensive.
Large parts of Gaza have been destroyed by air strikes that have numbered in the thousands, and the territory is under siege, with minimal food, water and fuel allowed to enter.
According to the Hamas and Islamic Jihad sources, the deal would also allow for up to 300 trucks of food and medical aid to enter Gaza.
Israel has been wary of allowing fuel into the strip for fear it could be used by Hamas in rockets or for other paramilitary means.
Israel has vowed to press ahead with its offensive, pledging to crush Hamas and ensure the hostages are released.
“We will not stop fighting until we bring our hostages home,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared after meeting relatives of those abducted.
– Premature babies –
In Gaza, medics and patients were again caught on the front line on Tuesday, as Israel expanded its operation across the north of the territory.
Officials in the Hamas-run health ministry said Israel struck the Indonesian Hospital on Monday, killing 12 people, before moving in ground forces.
“The Israeli army is laying siege to the Indonesian Hospital,” ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra told AFP.
The Hamas government said dozens of tanks and armoured vehicles were deployed around the outskirts of the hospital and were firing towards the facility.
“We fear the same thing will happen there as it did in Al-Shifa,” Qudra added, referring to Gaza’s largest hospital which has been besieged and scoured by Israeli troops.
Twenty-eight premature babies were evacuated from Al-Shifa to Egypt on Monday.
The Indonesian Hospital sits on the fringe of Gaza’s largest refugee camp Jabalia, which has become a new focus for the war and has been the scene of intense Israeli bombing in recent days.
The health ministry official stated there still were about 400 patients inside the hospital, as well as 2,000 people seeking shelter.
Around 200 people were evacuated from the hospital on Monday and bused to the relative safety of a hospital in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza.
At the Al-Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis, an AFP reporter witnessed bloodied children being carried into the facility and lying dazed on gurneys as chaos swirled around them.
“We miraculously got out,” said one man who said he escaped the Indonesian Hospital. “We still have brothers there. I just can’t…” he said, his voice trailing off.
– ‘Scenes of death’ –
Israel says Hamas uses medical facilities to hide fighters and as the base for operations, making them legitimate military objectives — while insisting it does everything possible to limit harm to civilians.
But a fierce international backlash has only grown in recent weeks, with protests erupting across the world, international agencies laying allegations of war crimes and some governments breaking diplomatic ties with Israel.
The World Health Organization said it was “appalled” by Monday’s strike on the Indonesian Hospital and reported it was just one of 164 documented attacks on health facilities and workers since the war began.
“The world cannot stand silent while these hospitals, which should be safe havens, are transformed into scenes of death, devastation, and despair,” the organisation said in a statement.
The Indonesian Hospital was opened almost a decade ago, and was funded by donations from Indonesia — the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.
Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi on Monday “strongly condemned the Israeli attack” on the hospital and described it a “clear violation of international humanitarian law.”
Marsudi added that the ministry had not been able to contact three Indonesian volunteers believed to have been working at the hospital.
Hamas says Gaza truce deal ‘close’, raising hopes for hostages
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