DOHA/GAZA/JERUSALEM — Israel and Hamas have moved closer to agreement on a 30-day ceasefire in Gaza when Israeli hostages and Palestinians prisoners would be released, sources told Reuters, as Israel pressed ahead with its assault on southern Gaza’s main city of Khan Younis.
Qatar, the US, and Egypt have held shuttle diplomacy since Dec. 28 seeking to bridge differences between Israel and the Palestinian militant group on a framework for a break in hostilities, which would also allow an increase in humanitarian aid to Gaza.
But the two sides remain at odds over how to permanently end the Gaza war, and Hamas has refused to move forward until this is resolved, the sources said.
The US State Department and White House, Qatar’s foreign ministry, and Egypt’s State Information Service did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the Reuters report.
Meanwhile, in its biggest operation in a month, the Israeli military pressed ahead with encircling Khan Younis where hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians are sheltering.
Israeli tanks on Tuesday shut the road from Khan Younis towards the Mediterranean coast, blocking the escape route for civilians trying to reach Rafah on Gaza’s southern edge bordering Egypt – now crammed with more than half the enclave’s 2.3 million people.
Israeli forces killed more than 100 militants in western Khan Younis in 24 hours, military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said on Tuesday evening. Israel says it has killed around 9,000 militants in total. Reuters was unable to verify the number.
On Monday, Israel’s military suffered its deadliest day in over three months of conflict as 24 soldiers were killed in two incidents, bringing the Israeli military death toll in Gaza since late October to 220. Hamas claimed responsibility for a rocket attack that killed 21 of the soldiers.
The latest deaths prompted Israeli officials to reiterate that the objectives of the war against the Palestinian Hamas movement that runs Gaza were unchanged and that efforts were being made to gain the release of more than 100 hostages.
“In the name of our heroes, for the sake of our lives, we will not stop fighting until absolute victory,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy said there would be no ceasefire that left Hamas in power and hostages in Gaza, following the militant group’s cross-border rampage on Oct. 7 in which some 1,200 Israelis were killed.
Palestinian health officials said at least 195 Palestinians were killed over the prior 24 hours, raising the documented death toll to 25,490. Thousands more are feared lost in the rubble.
“The entire population of Gaza is enduring destruction at a scale and speed without parallel in recent history,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council.
“Nothing can justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people,” he said, denouncing Israel’s opposition to creation of a Palestinian state that would exist alongside Israel.
‘CAUSE FOR OPTIMISM’
Diplomacy around a ceasefire deal appeared intense. Qatar said on Tuesday the country had “presented ideas to both sides, we are getting a constant stream of replies from both sides, and that in its own right is a cause for optimism.”
Later, White House spokesperson John Kirby said US Middle East envoy Brett McGurk was in Cairo and would travel in the region for “active” discussions on ensuring release of hostages and securing a humanitarian pause.
“The conversations are very sober and serious about trying to get another hostage deal in place,” Kirby told reporters.
Each side blamed the other for the collapse of a seven-day truce in November by rejecting terms to extend the daily release of hostages held by militants in exchange for Palestinian detainees.
Women, children, and foreign hostages were freed, but mediators failed at the final hour to find a formula to release more, including Israeli soldiers and civilian men.
In southern Gaza, Israel has blockaded hospitals, which Palestinian officials say makes it impossible to rescue the wounded. Israel says Hamas fighters operate in and around hospitals, which hospital staff and Hamas deny.
At the European Hospital, reached by Reuters in southern Khan Younis, Ahed Masmah brought in five corpses, piled on a mattress on his donkey cart.
“I found them face down in the street,” he said.
At Khan Younis’ main Nasser hospital, the biggest still functioning in the Gaza Strip, bodies were being buried on the grounds because it was unsafe to go to the cemetery.
Martin Griffiths, UN coordinator of emergency relief, said on Tuesday that 24 people were killed in strikes on an aid warehouse, UN center and humanitarian zone in the Khan Younis area. A distribution center where families receive aid came under heavy bombardment, he said on social media platform X. — Reuters