Israel bombs south Gaza as Hamas officials due in Cairo for truce talks

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - GAZA, Dec 29 — Egypt is due to host today a high-level Hamas delegation for talks aimed at putting an end to the nearly 12-week war with Israel that has devastated the Gaza Strip.

The Cairo meeting comes as fighting — triggered by Hamas’s deadly October 7 attack on Israel — rages in the besieged Palestinian territory’s south and centre.

Israeli shelling near a southern Gaza hospital has killed 41 people over the past two days, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society said on Thursday.

The casualties in repeated Israeli strikes near the Al-Amal hospital in Khan Yunis include “displaced persons seeking shelter”, the Red Crescent said in a statement.

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The UN humanitarian office said an estimated 100,000 more displaced people had arrived in the already-teeming southern border city of Rafah in recent days following the intensification of fighting around Deir al-Balah and Khan Yunis.

The Israeli military on Friday said its forces “are extending operation in Khan Yunis” and had “eliminated dozens of terrorists” across Gaza over the past 24 hours.

AFP TV footage showed smoke billowing over Rafah, near Egypt, following fresh strikes early today.

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The health ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza said on Thursday Israeli shelling had killed 20 people, most of them women and children, at the Shaboura camp in Rafah.

The Gaza fighting left much of the territory’s north in ruins, while the battlefront has shifted ever further to the south and raised tensions across the Middle East.

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas — dubbed a “terrorist” group by the United States and European Union — in retaliation for the October attack which left about 1,140 people dead, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

Around 250 hostages were also taken during the attack, more than half of whom remain captive.

Israel’s relentless aerial bombardment and ground invasion in Gaza have killed at least 21,320 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry.

The Israeli army says 168 of its soldiers have been killed inside Gaza.

Sources close to Hamas say Egypt’s three-stage plan provides for renewable ceasefires, a staggered release of hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israel, and ultimately an end to the war.

Aid corridor

The Israeli army has said it had deployed an additional brigade to Khan Yunis, hometown of Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar, and AFP correspondents reported sustained air and artillery strikes.

“The missions that our forces are carrying out in Khan Yunis are unprecedented... taking over control rooms and eliminating terrorists,” Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant told soldiers on Thursday.

Israel has repeatedly said that one of the chief goals of the war is the return of the 129 hostages it says remain in Gaza.

On Thursday, an Israeli kibbutz community said one of its residents, US-Israeli Judith Weinstein Haggai who was thought to be the oldest woman held captive had in fact died in the October 7 attack and her body held by Hamas.

US President Joe Biden said he was “devastated” by the news of the 70-year-old woman’s death, pledging that Washington would “not stop working” with its ally Israel to bring the remaining hostages home.

In Gaza, the UN says more than 80 percent of the narrow coastal territory’s 2.4 million people have been driven from their homes. Many now live in cramped shelters or makeshift tents around Rafah.

Residents in Rafah combed through rubble for survivors on Thursday after an air strike that one witness said left “several casualties”.

Tayseer Abu al-Eish said he was at home when “all of a sudden we heard a loud explosion and debris started falling on us. The apartment was completely destroyed and my daughters were screaming”.

An Israeli siege imposed after October 7, following years of crippling blockade, has deprived Gazans of food, water, fuel and medicine.

The severe shortages have been only sporadically eased by humanitarian aid convoys entering primarily via Egypt.

Israel said Thursday it had given preliminary approval to the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus for a “maritime lifeline” to ship aid to Gaza.

‘Complete withdrawal’

A Hamas official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP the delegation in Cairo would “give the response of the Palestinian factions, including several observations” regarding the Egyptian proposal, recently put to officials from Hamas and another Gaza armed group, Islamic Jihad.

Hamas would also seek “guarantees for a complete Israeli military withdrawal” from Gaza, the official said.

The proposal provides for a Palestinian government of technocrats after talks involving “all Palestinian factions”, which would be responsible for governing and rebuilding in post-war Gaza.

Diaa Rashwan, who heads Egypt’s State Information Services, said the plan was “intended to bring together the views of all parties concerned, with the aim of ending the shedding of Palestinian blood”.

In Israel, a rally Thursday calling for a ceasefire drew hundreds of protesters to a central square in the coastal city of Tel Aviv.

“Israelis, Palestinians, Muslims, Jews, Christians — this is everybody’s home,” said protester Itay Eyal, a 51-year-old teacher.

“The only solution is to recognise that both peoples are entitled to life, freedom, sovereignty and dignity.”

The bloodiest ever Gaza war has also sharply heightened tensions between Israel and its long-time arch foe Iran, which supports armed groups across the Middle East.

Israel has traded heavy cross-border fire with Iran-backed Hezbollah since the Gaza war erupted, and on Friday said its military had struck “Hezbollah infrastructure in southern Lebanon” after reporting rocket fire from there. — AFP

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