Israeli forces push deeper into Gaza City as Hamas warns escalation threatens ceasefire talks

Israeli forces push deeper into Gaza City as Hamas warns escalation threatens ceasefire talks

Israeli forces advanced deeper into the Gaza Strip’s largest city on Monday in pursuit of militants it says have regrouped there, sending thousands of Palestinians fleeing from an area that was ravaged in the early weeks of the nine-month-long war.

Hamas warned that the latest raids and displacement in Gaza City could lead to the collapse of long-running negotiations over a ceasefire and hostage release, setting up a potential setback after reports that the two sides appear to have narrowed the gaps between them.

The military ordered evacuations ahead of the latest raids, but Palestinians said nowhere feels safe. Most of the population of 2.3 million has been displaced, often multiple times. Hundreds of thousands are packed into sweltering tent camps.

Israel ordered the evacuation of northern Gaza in the first weeks of the war and has prevented most people from returning. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are still living in shelters or the shells of homes.

“We fled in the darkness amid heavy strikes,” said Sayeda Abdel-Baki, a mother of three who had sheltered with relatives in the Daraj neighbourhood. “This is my fifth displacement.”

Residents reported artillery and tank fire, as well as airstrikes. Gaza’s Health Ministry, with limited access to the north, did not immediately report casualties. The Hamas-run ministry says some 38,000 people in total have been killed by Israel’s campaign, though it does not distinguish between civilians and combatants.

Israel issued additional evacuation orders for areas in other neighbourhoods of central Gaza City. The military said it had intelligence showing that militants from Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad group were in the area and called on residents to head south to the city of Deir al-Balah.

Israel accuses Hamas and other militants of hiding among civilians. In Shijaiyah, a Gaza City neighbourhood that has seen weeks of fighting, the military said troops raided and destroyed schools and a clinic that had been converted into militant compounds.

Obstacles to a deal

Israel and Hamas seem to be the closest they have been in months to agreeing to a ceasefire deal that would pause the fighting in exchange for the release of dozens of hostages captured by Hamas in the 7 October attacks that triggered the war.

CIA Director William Burns returned to the region Monday for talks in Cairo, according to Egypt’s state-run Qahera TV, which is close to the security services. An Israeli delegation was also heading to the Egyptian capital, Israeli media reported.

But obstacles remain, even after Hamas agreed to relent on its key demand that Israel commit to ending the war permanently as part of any agreement. Officials told The Associated Press that that shift was driven in part by the level of destruction caused by Israel’s rolling offensive.

Hamas still wants mediators to guarantee that negotiations conclude with a permanent ceasefire, according to two officials with knowledge of the talks. The current draft says the mediators — the US, Qatar and Egypt — “will do their best” to ensure that negotiations lead to an agreement to wind down the war.

Israel, meanwhile, has refused to accept any deal that would force it to end the war while leaving Hamas intact.

Hamas on Monday said it is “offering flexibility and positivity” to facilitate a deal, while accusing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “putting more obstacles in the way of negotiations.”

Meanwhile, Hamas’ top political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, warned mediators of “catastrophic consequences” if Israel continued its operations in Gaza City, saying Netanyahu and the army would bear “full responsibility” for the collapse of the talks, the group said in a subsequent statement.

The two officials said there is also an impasse around whether Hamas can choose the high-profile prisoners held by Israel that it wants released in exchange for hostages. Some prisoners were convicted of killing Israelis, and Israel does not want Hamas to determine who is released.

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