Israeli strikes intensify in southern Gaza as new hostage deal sought

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Israel bombs Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday, against a backdrop of negotiations aimed at bringing about a pause in fighting between Israel and Hamas in the absence of a long-term peace plan.

The Palestine Red Crescent Society said early Tuesday that Israeli forces had targeted its headquarters in Khan Yunis “with artillery shelling on the fourth floor, coinciding with intense gunfire from Israeli drones, resulting in injuries among internally displaced individuals who sought safety on our premises”.

The U.N. humanitarian agency OCHA reported that “ground operations, fighting and attacks intensified” over the preceding day around the main southern city, with the Israeli army saying its forces had conducted multiple raids and taken control of Hamas command centres there.

The fierce fighting came as a White House official was due in the region for talks aimed at securing more hostage releases, and as U.S. media reported a new Israeli proposal for a deal that would involve a two-month pause in fighting.

U.N. agencies and aid groups have sounded the alarm about the growing threat of disease and famine in Gaza, where 1.7 million people are estimated to have been displaced from their homes.

Abu Iyad, his belongings piled on a donkey-drawn cart, told AFP on Monday that he was moving for the seventh time, fleeing Khan Yunis for Rafah on the Egyptian border, where hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians have settled, many in makeshift tents.

“I’m heading to the unknown,” he said. “They told us to go to Rafah — where to go in Rafah? Is there any space left?”

 Hostage talks 

The war in the Palestinian territory broke out with Hamas’s unprecedented Oct. 7 attacks, in response, Israel has carried out a relentless offensive that has killed at least 25,295 people in Gaza, around 70 percent of them women, children and adolescents, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

The Hamas attack also saw about 250 hostages seized, and Israel says around 132 remain in Gaza. That number includes the bodies of at least 28 dead hostages, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli data.

Relatives of the captives stormed a parliamentary committee meeting on Monday demanding urgent action.

U.S. news outlet Axios reported on Monday night that Israel had proposed to Hamas, via Qatari and Egyptian mediators, a new deal to free all the hostages.

The report, citing unnamed Israeli officials, said the proposed deal would be carried out in multiple stages, and would also involve the release of an undetermined number of Palestinian prisoners.

The plan was expected to take about two months to complete.

The proposal does not include promises to end the war, but it would involve Israeli troops reducing their presence in major cities in Gaza and gradually allowing residents to return to the territory’s devastated north, the Axios report said.

News of the proposal comes as U.S. media said the White House’s coordinator for the Middle East, Brett McGurk, was expected in Egypt and Qatar for meetings aimed at securing a new hostage exchange deal.

State Department spokesman Vedant Patel, however, said that Washington still believed “a two-state solution, a creation of a Palestinian state, is the only path that gets us out of this endless cycle of violence”.

 Two-state solution 

Netanyahu has steadfastly rejected calls for the creation of a Palestinian state, saying Israel must maintain “security control over all the territory west of the Jordan” River, an area that includes all of the Palestinian territories.

EU foreign ministers on Monday pressed Israel to change its mind at meetings in Brussels with the top diplomats from the two warring parties and key Arab states.

“The two-state solution is the only solution, and even those who don’t want to know about it have not yet come up with any other alternative,” said German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that more death and destruction in Gaza “will not help to defeat Hamas or the ideology”, nor would it make Israel safer.

At the gathering, Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz ignored questions from journalists over a future two-state solution and said his country was focused on returning the hostages and ensuring its security.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, who was also in attendance, said Israel’s rejection of “the two-state solution is dooming the future of the region to more conflicts”.

 Yemen strikes 

The war in Gaza has spurred fears of a wider escalation, with a surge in violence involving Iran-backed Hamas allies across the region.

Yemen’s Huthi rebels announced on Tuesday that they had fired missiles at a U.S. military ship in the Gulf of Aden near the Red Sea, but a U.S. defence official said no attack had taken place.

The United States and Britain later announced a fresh round of strikes on Huthi targets in response to the rebels’ continued attacks on Red Sea shipping.

The U.S. Central Command said in a statement that the targets of the strikes “included missile systems and launchers, air defense systems, radars, and deeply buried weapons storage facilities”.

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