Hopes of hostage exchange rise amid fierce fighting in northern Gaza

  • November 21, 2023

BEIRUT — Fierce fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas rocked the Jabalya region of the northern Gaza Strip on Tuesday while hope rose of a pause in the conflict and an exchange of hostages in Gaza for prisoners in Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened meetings Tuesday evening local time with his war cabinet, security cabinet and full cabinet, fueling speculation that a deal was imminent.

“It has been claimed that after the truce, we will end the war,” Netanyahu said ahead of the meeting. “The war will continue until all our objectives are achieved.”

“There is a difficult decision before us tonight, but it is the right one,” he said.

Hamas officials indicated that they had accepted a deal. Hamas politburo member Khalil al-Hayya told reporters that the militant group had informed Egyptian and Qatari negotiators of its agreement and the deal would happen “if the occupation [Israel] wants it.”

The fighting Tuesday was close to Gaza’s Indonesian Hospital, which had been struck Monday and was trying to evacuate hundreds of staff and patients. There were reports that Israeli fighter jets and drones were striking targets in the area repeatedly.

For weeks, Israel and Hamas have negotiated through Qatar and the United States an exchange of some of the more than 230 hostages taken from Israel and held by militants in Gaza for Palestinians held prisoner in Israel, and a multiday pause in fighting to allow for humanitarian assistance.

Israel, Hamas and U.S. nearing deal on hostage release, senior officials say

Hamas politburo member Izzat al-Rishq said Tuesday that the “truce” and exchange of captives was imminent and would be announced by Qatar. He did not provide more details. President Biden said Tuesday that he also believed a deal was near.

Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed al-Ansari said the sides had reached the “closest point” to date.

“The mediation has reached a critical stage and a final stage and has gone beyond the core issues and pivotal issues and has remained there,” he told reporters in Doha, Qatar.

Meanwhile, fighting escalated along Israel’s northern border, where Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters have been exchanging fire for the past six weeks.

Four civilians, including two journalists and an 80-year-old woman, were killed in one of the bloodiest days on the border during the current hostilities, Lebanon’s state-owned National News Agency reported.

Four suspected fighters were killed when an Israeli airstrike hit the vehicle in which they were traveling. Hamas said at least one of them was a Hamas fighter.

Hezbollah said it had retaliated by striking three Israeli military targets in northern Israel. A steady uptick in the intensity and range of the fighting in recent weeks is compounding fears of a second full-fledged war erupting.

The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Israel Defense Forces said in a statement that troops were active Tuesday in the areas hit, where they were targeting what it called “terrorist cells.”

A pause in fighting in Gaza could facilitate the evacuation of facilities caught in the fighting such as the Indonesian Hospital.

Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said Tuesday that Israeli tanks had surrounded the facility and no safe passage had been granted. He said the ministry was working with the Red Cross to move patients. “We will not leave the Indonesian Hospital until the last wounded person has been evacuated,” he said.

The ministry said that some 120 people had been evacuated.

The crisis in Gaza’s hospitals has become a focus of the debate over Israeli tactics in Gaza. The current round of fighting began on Oct. 7, when Hamas launched a surprise assault that killed at least 1,200 people in several towns in Israel. Israel responded with a military commander that its leaders say is aimed at dismantling Hamas in Gaza.

Video released on Nov. 20 shows Indonesian Hospital in the northern Gaza Strip, home to thousands of patients and displaced people, surrounded by Israeli tanks. (Video: Quds News Network via Storyful)

Palestinians say the Israeli attacks on hospitals indicate a clear disregard for civilian life. The Israelis say attacks around hospitals are justified because Hamas uses the facilities for military purposes.

Israeli soldiers have been searching al-Shifa Hospital, the largest in the Gaza Strip, for the underground Hamas command center that Israel has long alleged is hidden there. So far, Israel has shown images of a tunnel shaft and weapons, but no evidence of a major command center.

Former Israeli prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak told CNN this week that Israeli engineers built bunkers underneath al-Shifa when they controlled Gaza in the 1980s “to enable more space for operation of the hospital.”

Six weeks of fighting have degraded Gaza’s hospital system while driving up casualties. The Gaza Health Ministry reported more than 11,100 dead on Nov. 10, when it said the fighting and deteriorating communications made continuing the count impossible.

Michael Ryan, emergencies director at the World Health Organization, said Monday that only three hospitals in northern Gaza were still partially functional; the remaining 21 were not operating at all.

“We are seeing a complete collapse of the higher-level infrastructure of the Gazan health system,” he said. “It is just the most basic of needs that can be met now.”

Al-Shifa, now largely empty, once provided advanced medical reference, cancer, dialysis and trauma services. On Tuesday, its dialysis building was surrounded by the IDF for the second day, the Gaza Health Ministry said, and parts of the hospital had been destroyed.

Jordan sent staff and equipment on Monday to construct a field hospital in the southern city of Khan Younis. The Jordanian royal court said it would be operational in 48 hours and have 41 beds.

Israel was increasingly describing large parts of northern Gaza as under its control, but fighting was ongoing around Jabalya, home to the largest refugee camp in the strip, a densely packed warren of concrete buildings. Hamas has denied that Israeli forces are in uncontested control anywhere.

Israel has said it could soon expand operations to other parts of the Gaza Strip. Family members of hostages, meanwhile, say not enough is being done to bring their loved ones home.

Netanyahu met with 107 family members of hostages on Monday night. Some families wanted to hear that Israel’s primary objective in the war was to return the hostages, Israeli media reported.

After the meeting, Netanyahu tweeted: “getting our abductees back is a sacred and supreme mission. We’ve never relented on the task.”

Harb and Schemm reported from London. Hazem Balousha in Amman, Jordan, Heba Mahfouz in Cairo and Lior Soroka in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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