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Israel expands Gaza operation as mediator says hostage deal 'close'

Israel expands Gaza operation as mediator says hostage deal 'close'

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20 November 2023

Gaza Strip (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) -

Israeli troops were 'expanding' their operation in the Gaza Strip 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 Sunday it was 'expanding its operational activities in additional neighbourhoods... of the Gaza Strip.'

After intense bombardment, an 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 on Saturday, including on a UN 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 rights chief Volker Turk on Sunday condemned the purported strike on the school as 'horrifying', adding that '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.

- 'Window of legitimacy' -

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.

Six weeks into the war, Israel is facing intense international pressure to justify its bloody toll.

Israel officials have warned 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 Muslim-majority nations.

Israel on Sunday presented what it said was evidence Hamas gunmen used Gaza's largest hospital, Al-Shifa, to hide foreign hostages and to mask underground tunnels.

The Israeli military released what was said to be CCTV 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 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 a 19-year-old Israeli soldier Noa Marciano at Al-Shifa and presented images of what it said was a 55-metre-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'.

Over the weekend, hundreds of people fled Al-Shifa hospital on foot as loud explosions were heard around the complex.

Columns of sick and injured were seen leaving with displaced people, doctors and nurses.

At least 15 bodies, some in advanced stages of decomposition, were strewn along the route, an AFP journalist said.

The WHO on Sunday said it evacuated thirty-one premature babies from the facility.

Al-Shifa head of surgery Marwan Abu Sada told AFP that Israeli troops were still in the hospital and it was surrounded by tanks.

'I heard at least two explosions since this morning,' he said Sunday.

Other doctors said the troops were going from building to building and detonated explosives on the ground floors and hospital basements searching for Hamas tunnels.

- 'Big, big hole in our hearts' -

Israel has vowed to eradicate Hamas and to free around 240 people taken hostage by the militants during the worst attack in its history, most of them Israeli citizens but also dozens of foreigners.

The bodies of two female hostages were recovered in Gaza this week, the Israeli military said.

Four abductees have so far been released by Hamas and a fifth rescued by troops.

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 said efforts to bring hostages 'safely back to their homes' in return for a temporary ceasefire was 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 Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, adding that only 'minor' practical details remained unresolved.

The hostages include infants, teens and pensioners. Their fate has racked not just their families but the Israeli public at large.

US 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.'

In London, the teary father of missing 9-year-old Emily Hand begged for her to be brought home.

'There's just a big, big hole in all our hearts that won't be filled until she comes home again,' he told AFP.