Israel steps up offensive in Gaza amid ceasefire bid

Nidal al-Mughrabi |

Gaza City residents have fled under Israeli fire as tanks thrust deeper into the heart of the city, the second day of a stepped-up military offensive that Palestinian militant group Hamas says could jeopardise ceasefire talks.

Qatari and Egyptian mediators, backed by the United States, have accelerated their efforts this week to seal a ceasefire deal aimed at ending the Gaza war and releasing Israeli hostages in the enclave in return for Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel.

On Tuesday, Israeli tanks deepened their incursion into some Gaza City districts including Shejaia, Sabra and Tel Al-Hawa, where residents reported the previous day some of the most fierce fighting since the start of the war between Israel and the Islamist Hamas.

Footage circulated on social media on Tuesday showed families packed onto donkey carts and in the backs of trucks piled with mattresses and other belongings racing through the city’s streets to flee areas under Israeli evacuation orders.

The Palestinian Red Crescent said all its medical clinics were out of service in Gaza City due to the evacuation orders.

The Nusseirat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip
More than 38,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli military offensive. (AP PHOTO)

The assault has unfolded as senior US officials were in the region pushing for a ceasefire after Hamas made concessions last week. 

But the renewed campaign “could bring the negotiation process back to square one”, Hamas quoted leader Ismail Haniyeh as saying on Monday.

The armed wings of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad said they fought against Israeli forces in Tel Al-Hawa with anti-tank rockets and mortar fire, and inflicted casualties. 

There was no immediate response from the Israeli military on those claims.

In a statement, the Israeli military said troops were continuing operations in Gaza City, following intelligence indicating the presence of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the area. 

It said Israeli forces had taken dozens of fighters out of action and found numerous weapons.

Palestinian health officials said Israeli air strikes on Tuesday killed six people in a house in Gaza City, nine in two houses in Al-Nuseirat and Deir Al-Balah in central Gaza and three people in Rafah on the Gaza Strip’s southern edge.

An Israeli strike against a group of Palestinians in Al-Bureij camp in central Gaza Strip killed at least seven people, most of them children, medics said.

Smoke rises to the sky after an explosion in the Gaza Strip
Qatari and Egyptian mediators have accelerated their efforts this week to seal a ceasefire deal. (AP PHOTO)

The war was triggered October 7 when fighters led by Hamas attacked southern Israel, killing 1200 people and taking about 250 hostages, according to Israeli figures.

More than 38,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli military offensive since then, according to Gaza health officials.

Hopes among Gazans of a pause in the fighting had revived after Hamas last week accepted a key part of a US ceasefire proposal. 

But gaps still remain between the two sides, the White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said on Monday.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists the deal must not prevent Israel resuming fighting until it meets its war objectives, including wiping out Hamas as a threat.

A Palestinian official close to the mediation efforts said Israel must make the next move.

“It is all up to Netanyahu now,” the official said on Tuesday. 

“Hamas made its position clear and showed flexibility enough to make a deal possible, but even the Israelis are saying it is all up to Netanyahu and whether he wants a deal.”