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Israel-Gaza hostage deal believed close as fighting rages

BEIRUT — Fierce fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas engulfed the Jabalya region of the northern Gaza Strip on Tuesday amid heightened speculation that negotiations over a hostage exchange and a pause in the conflict could be reaching its final stages.

The fighting was close to Gaza’s Indonesian Hospital, which was struck Monday and is now seeking to evacuate hundreds of staff and patients from the fighting. There were reports that Israeli fighter jets and drones were repeatedly striking targets in the area.

For weeks, there have been reports of ongoing negotiations between the Israelis and Hamas through the mediation of Qatar and the United States to exchange some of the more than 230 hostages in Gaza for Palestinian prisoners and a multiday humanitarian pause in fighting.

Israel, Hamas and U.S. nearing deal on hostage release, senior officials say

Hamas official Izzat al-Rishq said in a statement early Tuesday that the truce deal was imminent and would involve the release of hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and would be announced by Qatar, but he would not provide more details. For his part, President Biden on Monday also said he believed a deal was near.

Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed al-Ansari said the negotiations have reached the “closest point” to date.

“The mediation has reached a critical stage and a final stage and has gone beyond the core issues and pivotal issues and has remained there,” he told a news conference in Doha.

In addition to the release of hostages, a pause in fighting is expected for humanitarian reasons, which could facilitate the evacuation of facilities caught in the fighting such as the Indonesian Hospital.

Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said Tuesday that no safe passage has been granted yet, and Israeli tanks have surrounded the facility. He said the ministry is working with the Red Cross to evacuate the wounded. “We will not leave the Indonesian Hospital until the last wounded person has been evacuated,” he added.

So far, the ministry said that some 120 people have been evacuated from the hospital.

The crisis in Gaza’s hospitals has become a focus of the debate over Israeli tactics in Gaza following the Oct. 7 Hamas assault that killed at least 1,200 people in Israel.

Palestinians say the attacks on hospitals indicate a clear Israeli disregard for civilian life while the Israelis say they are justified because Hamas uses the hospitals for military purposes.

Al-Shifa Hospital, the largest in the Gaza Strip, has been overrun by Israeli soldiers who are carrying out an extensive search for the underground Hamas command center that Israel has long alleged exists.

In an interview with CNN on Monday, former Israeli prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak said that Israeli engineers had originally built bunkers underneath al-Shifa in the 1980s when they controlled Gaza “in order to enable more space for operation of the hospital.”

So far Israel has shown images of a tunnel shaft underneath the hospital but has yet to show evidence of a major command structure.

The conflict has seen a steady degradation of the hospital system in the Gaza Strip, even as casualties have mounted. The Gaza Health Ministry stopped its count of the dead at just over 11,000 on Nov. 10 after the fighting and deteriorating communications made tallying from the hospitals impossible.

On Monday, Michael Ryan, emergencies director for the World Health Organization, said only three hospitals in northern Gaza are still partially functional with the remaining 21 entirely out of operation.

“We are seeing a complete collapse of the higher-level infrastructure of the Gazan health system. It is just the most basic of needs that can be met now,” he said.

Al-Shifa, the vast hospital complex that has now largely been emptied, was once “the absolute backbone of health service provision in Gaza,” providing advanced medical reference, cancer, dialysis and trauma services. On Tuesday, its dialysis building had been surrounded by the IDF for the second day, the Health Ministry said, adding that parts of the hospital had been destroyed.

While Israel is increasingly describing large parts of northern Gaza as under its control, fighting is ongoing, with the current focus around Jabalya, which includes the largest refugee camp in the Gaza Strip — a densely packed warren of concrete buildings. Hamas has denied that Israeli forces are in uncontested control anywhere.

Israel, however, has said that operations could soon expand to other parts of the Gaza Strip. There has been increasing worry, however, from some family members of hostages that not enough is being done to bring home their loved ones.

According to Israeli media reports, some families of the abducted wanted to hear that Israel’s primary objective in the war was to return the abducted — rather than just destroying Hamas, which could endanger the hostages.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a meeting with 107 family members of hostages on Monday night and tweeted afterward “getting our abductees back is a sacred and supreme mission. We’ve never relented on the task.”

Harb and Schemm reported from London. Hazem Balousha in Amman and Heba Mahfouz in Cairo contributed to this report.

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