KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli strikes pounded Gaza City overnight and into Thursday as ground forces battled Hamas militants in dense urban neighborhoods from which tens of thousands have fled in recent days.
Israeli troops were around 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) from Shifa Hospital in the heart of downtown, the hospital’s director said. Israel has been vague on troop movements, but officials say Gaza’s largest city is the focus of their campaign to crush Hamas following its deadly Oct. 7 assault inside Israel.
International mediators were meanwhile closing in on a possible deal for a three-day humanitarian cease-fire in exchange for the release of around a dozen hostages held by Hamas, according to two Egyptian officials, a United Nations official and a Western diplomat. The deal would also allow a small amount of fuel to enter the territory for the first time since the war began.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said any temporary cease-fire would have to be accompanied by the release of hostages seized by Hamas during the Oct. 7 attack. Israel has said around 240 hostages are currently held in Gaza. Their plight has galvanized Israeli support for the war despite growing international concern for Palestinian civilians.
The Group of Seven wealthy nations, which includes close allies of Israel, issued a statement Wednesday condemning Hamas and supporting Israel’s right to self-defense. But the group also called for the “unimpeded” delivery of food, water, medicine and fuel, and for “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting.
The possible cease-fire deal is being brokered by the United States, Egypt and Qatar, a Persian Gulf country that mediates with Hamas.
A senior U.S. official said the Biden administration has suggested Israel tie the length of a pause to a certain number of hostages being released in a formula that could be used for additional pauses. All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of impacting the delicate, ongoing negotiations.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen declined to elaborate on any emerging deal in an interview with Israel’s army radio, saying “I’d recommend not talking about what we’ve agreed to — it hurts the negotiations.”
Meanwhile, Israeli ground forces battling inside Gaza City drew closer to Gaza’s largest hospital, Shifa, according to the hospital’s general director, Mohammed Abu Selmia.
The Israeli military says Hamas’ main command center is located in and under the hospital complex and that senior leaders are hiding there, using the facility as a shield. Hamas and hospital staff deny the claim and say the military is making a pretext to strike it.
For Palestinians in Gaza, the hospital is a symbol of civilian suffering in the war. Like others, it has been overwhelmed by a constant stream of wounded even as medical supplies dwindle. Tens of thousands of displaced people have been sheltering in and around the complex.
Scores of wounded people were rushed to Shifa overnight, Abu Selmia told The Associated Press on Thursday. “At dawn, a shell landed very close to the hospital, but thank God only a few people had minor injuries,” he said.
“The conditions here are disastrous in every sense of the word,” he said. “We’re short on medicine and equipment, and the doctors and nurses are exhausted. … We’re unable to do much for the patients.“
More than two-thirds of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have fled their homes since the war began, with many heeding Israeli orders to flee to the southern part of the besieged enclave. The exodus from Gaza City and surrounding areas in the north has accelerated in recent days as people run out of food and water and flee intensified shelling and advancing Israeli forces.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said 50,000 people fled south on Gaza’s main highway on Wednesday during a daily, hourslong window announced by the Israeli military. It said “hundreds of thousands” of people remain in the north.
There are clashes and shelling near the road, and evacuees reported seeing corpses alongside it, the U.N. office said. Most are traveling on foot with only what they can carry, many holding children or pushing older relatives in carts.
Israel is focusing its operations on Gaza City, which was home to some 650,000 people before the war and where the military says Hamas has its main military infrastructure, including a labyrinth of tunnels.
The trickle of aid entering Gaza from the south is largely barred from going north, which has been without running water for weeks. The U.N. aid office said all the bakeries there have shut down for lack of fuel, water and flour. Hospitals running low on supplies are performing surgeries without anesthesia.
Israel has told people to head south while continuing to strike what it says are militant targets all across the territory. New arrivals from the north are squeezing into homes with extended family, or into U.N. schools-turned-shelters where hundreds of thousands are taking refuge. At one, 600 people must share a single toilet, according to the U.N. office.
Hundreds of trucks carrying aid have been allowed to enter Gaza from Egypt since Oct. 21, but aid workers have described it as a drop in the ocean of a worsening humanitarian crisis.
A month of relentless bombardment in Gaza since the Hamas attack has killed more than 10,500 Palestinians — two-thirds of them women and minors, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory. More than 2,300 others are believed to have been buried by strikes that in some cases have demolished entire city blocks.
Israeli officials say thousands of Palestinian militants have been killed, and blame civilian deaths on Hamas, accusing it of operating in residential areas. Gaza’s Health Ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its casualty reports.
More than 1,400 people have died in Israel since the start of the war, most of them civilians killed by Hamas militants during their initial incursion. Israel says 32 of its soldiers have been killed in Gaza since the ground offensive began.
Palestinian militants have continued to fire rockets into Israel, and some 250,000 Israelis have been forced to evacuate from communities near Gaza and along the northern border with Lebanon, where Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants have traded fire on a daily basis.
Magdy reported from Cairo and Chehayeb from Beirut. Associated Press writers Amy Teibel in Jerusalem and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
Full AP coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war