Israeli forces push deeper into Gaza City in pursuit of militants. Thousands flee again

By Samy Magdy And Wafaa Shurafa, The Associated Press

Israeli forces advanced deeper into the Gaza Strip’s largest city in an incursion that the military said was aimed at militants who had regrouped there, sending thousands of Palestinians fleeing on Monday from an area ravaged in the early weeks of the nine-month-long war.

The advance into Gaza City came as Israel and Hamas drew closer to bridging gaps in indirect talks over a cease-fire and hostage release.

Israeli troops battled militants in areas that the army said had been largely cleared months ago in largely isolated northern Gaza. The military ordered evacuations ahead of the raids, but Palestinians say nowhere feels safe. Most of the population of 2.3 million has been displaced, often multiple times, and hundreds of thousands are packed into sweltering tent camps.

Israel ordered the evacuation of northern Gaza, including Gaza City, in the opening weeks of the war and has prevented most people from returning. But hundreds of thousands of Palestinians remain, living in the shells of their homes or shelters.

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

Residents reported artillery and tank fire, as well as airstrikes. Gaza’s Health Ministry, which has limited access to the north, did not immediately report casualties.

Israel issued additional evacuation orders Monday for areas in other neighborhoods of central Gaza City, calling 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 neighborhood that has seen weeks of heavy fighting, the military said troops had raided and destroyed schools and a clinic that had been converted into militant compounds.

Obstacles to a deal

Israel and Hamas appear to be the closest they have been in months to agreeing to a cease-fire deal that would pause the war in exchange for the release of dozens of Israelis captured by Hamas in the Oct. 7 attack that triggered the war.

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

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

Israel has rejected any deal that would force it to end the war with Hamas still intact — a condition Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated Sunday.

The officials said there’s also an impasse around whether Hamas should be allowed to choose the high-profile prisoners held by Israel that it wants released in exchange for the hostages. Some long-serving prisoners were convicted of killing Israelis, and Israel does not want Hamas to determine who is released. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive talks with the media.

Bombing keeps responders from bodies

Inside Gaza, residents saw no end to their suffering.

Maha Mahfouz fled her home with her two children and many neighbors in Gaza City’s Zaytoun neighborhood. She said their area was not included in the latest evacuation orders but “we are panicked because the bombing and gunfire are very close to us.”

Fadel Naeem, the director of the Al-Ahli hospital, said patients and their companions fled the facility in panic even though there was no evacuation order for the area around it. He said patients in critical condition had been evacuated to other hospitals in northern Gaza.

The Israeli military said it had received intelligence that showed the area was housing militants from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group.

Mahmoud Bassal, a spokesman for the Civil Defense, first responders who operate under the Hamas-run government, said the neighborhoods of Tufah, Daraj and Shijaiyah had become inaccessible because of Israeli bombing.

In a voice message, he said the military shelled houses in the Jaffa area of Gaza City and first responders “saw people lying on the ground and were not able to retrieve them because of the bombing.”

The war has killed more than 38,000 people in Gaza, according to the Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians in its count. The fighting has decimated large swaths of urban landscape and sparked a humanitarian catastrophe.

Hamas’ cross-border raid on Oct. 7 killed 1,200 people in southern Israel, most of them civilians, according to Israeli authorities. The militants took roughly 250 people hostage. About 120 are still in captivity, with about a third said to be dead.

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