© Reuters. Smoke rises after an explosion in Gaza, seen from southern Israel, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas, November 18, 2023. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and James Mackenzie
KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel, the United States and Hamas reached an agreement in principle to release dozens of women and children held hostage in Gaza in exchange for a five-day break in the fighting, The Washington Post reported, citing people familiar with the matter.
However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. officials said no deal had yet been reached.
The release of the hostages could begin in the coming days, barring any last-minute incidents, according to people familiar with the detailed six-page agreement, the newspaper said Saturday.
The report comes as Israel appears to be preparing to expand its offensive against Hamas militants in southern Gaza after airstrikes killed dozens of Palestinians, including civilians reportedly sheltering in two schools.
Under the agreement, all sides would freeze combat operations for at least five days while at least 50 hostages would be released in groups every 24 hours, the Post reported. Hamas took around 240 hostages during its October 7 rampage in Israel, which killed 1,200 people.
The pause is also intended to allow the arrival of a significant amount of humanitarian aid, the newspaper said, adding that the outline of the agreement had been developed during weeks of negotiations in Qatar.
But Netanyahu said at a news conference Saturday evening: “Regarding the hostages, there are a lot of unsubstantiated rumors, a lot of incorrect information. I would like to be clear: for the moment, there has been no agreement. But I want to promise: when there is something to say – we will let you know.
A White House spokesperson also said that Israel and Hamas had not yet reached an agreement on a temporary ceasefire, adding that the United States continued to work to reach an agreement. A second U.S. official also said no deal had been reached.
HOSPITAL “A DEATH ZONE”
Israel vowed to destroy Hamas after the October 7 attack. As the conflict enters its seventh week, authorities in the Hamas-led Gaza Strip have raised their death toll to 12,300, including 5,000 children.
After dropping leaflets earlier in the week, Israel on Saturday again warned civilians in parts of southern Gaza to move as it prepares for an attack after subduing the north.
Raising international concern, Israel has made Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City the main objective of its ground advance into northern Gaza.
A World Health Organization (WHO)-led team that visited Al Shifa on Saturday described it as a “death zone” with signs of shooting and shelling. The WHO said it was developing plans for the immediate evacuation of remaining patients and staff.
Elsewhere in the north, Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini of UNRWA, the United Nations aid organization for Palestinian refugees, said on the social media platform X that Israel had bombed two agency schools. More than 4,000 civilians were housed in one of them, he said.
“Dozens of people were reportedly killed, including children,” he added. “For the second time in less than 24 hours, schools are not spared. ENOUGH, these horrors must stop.”
A spokesman for Hamas authorities in Gaza said 200 people had been killed or injured at the school. The Israeli army made no comment.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose government controls parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, said Saturday that “hundreds of forcibly displaced people have been killed” at the two Gaza schools.
Abbas on Saturday called on US President Joe Biden to intervene to end the Israeli operation in Gaza.
The Israeli army killed two Palestinians during incursions into the West Bank early Sunday, the Palestinian news agency WAFA reported.
Israeli forces shot dead Issam Al-Fayed, a disabled 46-year-old, at the entrance to the Jenin refugee camp, the agency said. Another man, Omar Laham, 20, was shot in the head during clashes with soldiers in the Dheisheh refugee camp, south of Bethlehem, the statement said.
The agency said 15 Palestinians were killed early Sunday in Israeli aerial bombardments of the central and southern Gaza Strip.
Thirteen people were killed in an attack on a house in the Nuseirat camp in central Gaza, while a woman and her child were killed in the southern town of Khan Younis, WAFA said.
Reuters was unable to independently verify this information.
Biden, who opposes a ceasefire, envisioned an end to the conflict, saying in a Washington Post opinion piece that the Palestinian Authority should ultimately govern both Gaza and the West Bank.
Asked about Biden’s proposal, Netanyahu told reporters in Tel Aviv that the Palestinian Authority, in its current form, was not capable of being responsible for Gaza. Israel has not revealed a strategy for Gaza after the war.
An Israeli offensive in the south could force hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled northern Gaza City to uproot themselves again, along with residents of Khan Younis, a city of more than 400,000, worsening a serious humanitarian crisis.
The conflict has already displaced around two-thirds of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents.
An advance in southern Gaza, however, could prove more complicated and deadlier than in the north, with Hamas militants holed up in the Khan Younis area, a senior Israeli source and two former officials said.
An airstrike in a busy residential area of Khan Younis on Saturday morning killed 26 Palestinians and injured 23, health officials said.
Eyad Al-Zaeem told Reuters he lost his aunt, children and grandchildren in the attack. They were all evacuated from northern Gaza on orders from the Israeli army, only to die where the army told them they could be safe, he said.
“All of them were martyred. They had nothing to do with the (Hamas) resistance,” Zaeem said, standing in front of the Nasser hospital morgue, where the 26 bodies were deposited before being transported by their relatives towards burials.