PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES — Thousands of Palestinians fled heavy combat between Hamas and Israel in Gaza City on Thursday (Nov 9) as Israeli and US spy chiefs met in Qatar for talks on a possible humanitarian pause in the fighting.
Washington announced Israel had agreed to a daily four-hour military halt in northern Gaza to allow civilians out after more than a month of the deadliest war to hit the narrow Palestinian territory, sparked by Hamas’s unprecedented Oct 7 attack on Israel.
The limited pauses build on north-south “evacuation corridors” the Israeli army had promised would remain safe and which were used by tens of thousands to flee in recent days.
Israeli military spokesman Richard Hecht said the agreement meant no “shift” in strategy. “These are tactical local pauses for humanitarian aid, which are limited in time and area,” he told reporters.
While fighting raged on Thursday, crowds walked south clutching children and bags on the road leading away from Gaza City and its surroundings.
On Oct 7, gunmen from Hamas poured over the Gaza border with Israel and, according to Israeli officials, killed more than 1,400 people, most of them civilians, and seized about 240 hostages.
Vowing to destroy Hamas, Israel retaliated with an aerial bombing and ground offensive that the health ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip says has killed more than 10,800 people, mostly civilians and many of them children.
Movement of civilians within Gaza has increased sharply from earlier this week, with the UN estimating some 1.5 million people were already seeking safety in the south.
But hundreds of thousands of civilians remained in battle zones in the north, according to the UN humanitarian affairs office OCHA.
Central Intelligence Agency director Bill Burns and Mr David Barnea, head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, were in Doha for talks on a potential “humanitarian pause” that would include hostage releases and more aid for Gaza, an official told AFP.
“Talks have been progressing well towards a deal in the past few days,” said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In Gaza, AFPTV footage on Thursday showed massive strikes in the vicinity of the Indonesian hospital in Beit Lahia.
Hamas on Thursday released images of its fighters, armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and assault rifles, clashing with Israeli soldiers backed by armoured vehicles in the ruins of the besieged territory’s north.
The Israeli military said its operations in the heart of Gaza City, near Al-Shifa hospital, had targeted Hamas’s “central intelligence headquarters” and weapons-making facilities.
The battle raged above and below ground, the army said, exposing some of Hamas’s extensive network of tunnel and subterranean bases that form a significant element of the militants’ capacity to fight.
Israel said dozens of militants were killed, while adding the overall death toll for Israel’s troops in the ground offensive had risen to 35.
According to figures shared by the military on Thursday, Palestinian militants launched some 9,500 rockets at Israel since October 7, about 3,000 of them in the first four hours of the attack alone.
The intense combat and the effective sealing off of the densely populated coastal territory have led to increasingly dire conditions for civilians.
French President Emmanuel Macron urged nations to “work towards a ceasefire” between Israel and Hamas, as he opened a conference in Paris on Gaza aid.
Organisers said donor countries had pledged more than a billion euros (S$1.45 billion), which France’s foreign ministry earlier said would likely finance goods such as food, fuel and medical supplies, financial support and humanitarian access.
WAIT FOR BREAD
“We have no water, no toilets,” said Ms Umm Alaa al-Hajin, now in Khan Yunis in south Gaza after fleeing bombardment in the north.
“We get a loaf of bread every three or four days, and we have to wait in line for hours.”
Mr David Satterfield, the US special envoy for aid assistance, said on Thursday “around 100 trucks a day” were now entering Gaza carrying basic supplies, but “much more is needed”.
In a new report, the UN Development Program (UNDP) predicted soaring poverty rates among Palestinians as a result of the current war, with some 285,000 Gazans projected to be added to the impoverished pre-war population of almost 1.5 million.
“In our most conservative scenario, this conflict is likely to set back development (in the Palestinian territories) by well over a decade,” UNDP administrator Achim Steiner told AFP.
Gaza’s southern Rafah crossing with Egypt also reopened to allow a limited number of wounded people and foreigners to flee the war, a Palestinian official told AFP.
Crossings were suspended for the second time on Wednesday due to Israel refusing to approve the list of wounded people due to be evacuated, which had been sent by the Hamas government to Egypt.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected a ceasefire unless the 239 people currently believed to be held hostage in Gaza are released.
The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad released a video Thursday, claiming to show two hostages — a woman in her 70s and a 13-year-old boy — which if verified would suggest not all captives are held by Hamas.
“We are ready to release them on humanitarian grounds when the security conditions on the ground are met,” said in the video Mr Abu Hamza, spokesman for the group’s military wing.
Mr Hecht, the Israeli army spokesman, slammed the video as “psychological terrorism”.
The climbing death toll in Gaza meant that Palestinians were having to inter their dead in makeshift cemeteries.
“We bury the dead in football fields and other vacant lots because the proper burial grounds are full,” said Mr Shihteh Nasser, 48, who had helped in the burials.
Bodies have piled up outside hospitals, on roads and in parks, in refrigerated trucks and even in a repurposed ice-cream van.
Israel seized Gaza in the 1967 Six-Day War and withdrew in 2005. Two years later, Hamas took control and Israel imposed a crippling blockade.
In the occupied West Bank, where violence has surged in tandem with the war in Gaza, at least 14 Palestinians were killed Thursday, according to the Ramallah-based health ministry, in what UN records show was the deadliest Israeli army raid since 2005. AFP