Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday asked his government to accept a deal for Palestinian Hamas militants to free some hostages in Gaza in exchange for a multi-day truce even as the death of a hostage in captivity was announced.
Officials from Qatar, which has been mediating negotiations, as well as the U.S., Israel and Hamas have for days been saying a deal was imminent.
Before gathering with his full government, Netanyahu met on Tuesday with his war cabinet and wider national security cabinet over the deal. Hamas is believed to be holding more than 200 hostages, taken when its fighters surged into Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people, according to Israeli tallies.
The Israeli prime minister said the intervention of U.S. President Joe Biden had helped to improve the deal so that it included more hostages for fewer concessions.
But Netanyahu said Israel’s broader mission had not changed.
“We are at war and we will continue the war until we achieve all our goals. To destroy Hamas, return all our hostages and ensure that nobody in Gaza can threaten Israel,” he said in a recorded message at the start of the latest government meeting.
If agreed, the accord would see the first truce of a war in which Israeli bombardments have flattened swathes of Hamas-ruled Gaza, killed 13,300 civilians in the tiny densely populated enclave and left about two-thirds of its 2.3 million people homeless, according to authorities in Gaza.
A U.S. official briefed on the discussions said the deal would include 50 hostages taken from Israel, mostly women and children, in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners and a pause in the fighting of four or five days.
The pause would facilitate delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza.
Qatar Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majed Al-Ansari said the proposal on a hostage release deal was delivered to Israel in the early hours of Tuesday.
“The State of Qatar is awaiting the result of the Israeli government’s vote on the proposal,” he said.
Hamas has to date released only four captives: U.S. citizens Judith Raanan, 59, and her daughter, Natalie Raanan, 17, on Oct. 20, citing “humanitarian reasons,” and Israeli women Nurit Cooper, 79, and Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, on Oct. 23.
The armed wing of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, which participated in the Oct. 7 raid with Hamas, announced late on Tuesday the death of one of the Israeli hostages it has held since the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel.
“We previously expressed our willingness to release her for humanitarian reasons, but the enemy was stalling and this led to her death,” Al Quds Brigades said on its Telegram channel.
As attention focused on the hostage release deal, fighting on the ground raged on with Israel saying its forces had encircled the Jabalia refugee camp, a major urban flashpoint and Hamas militant stronghold.
The Palestinian news agency WAFA said 33 people were killed and dozens wounded in an Israeli air strike on part of Jabalia, a congested urban extension of Gaza City where Hamas has been battling advancing Israeli armoured forces.
In southern Gaza, Hamas-affiliated media said 10 people were killed and 22 injured by an Israeli air strike on an apartment in the city of Khan Younis.
Reuters could not immediately verify the accounts of fighting on either side.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said Canada is closely watching for a potential deal on Tuesday between Israel and Hamas to release hostages, as both sides suggest an announcement might be imminent.
“What we expect from this deal is we want to make sure that all hostages are released, that all foreign nationals are allowed to get out of Gaza – including, of course, the around 200 Canadians that are still in Gaza,” Joly said Tuesday morning.
She told reporters on Parliament Hill that there were positive signs, but noted that difficult negotiations have been ongoing for weeks.
“Our objective right now is that finally, humanitarian pauses (will be) allowed to happen, and we think that this potential deal could lead to a form of, eventually, a ceasefire.”
Joly told reporters in Ottawa that she spoke about a possible hostage deal with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week, and that she discussed it on Tuesday morning with her Qatari counterpart.
“We are still calling for humanitarian pauses, a humanitarian truce, which would lead to a potential ceasefire.”
Global Affairs Canada has said one Canadian is missing in the region, but it will not confirm if it believes that person is held hostage by Hamas. Washington this past weekend hinted that at least one Canadian is among the hostages – a detail that Ottawa has not confirmed.
Meanwhile, no Canadians were added Tuesday to a list of foreign nationals approved to cross into Egypt from Gaza.
Ottawa says more than 450 Canadians, permanent residents and their relatives have made the trip out of the Palestinian territory since the conflict began.
The World Health Organization said on Tuesday three hospitals in Israeli-besieged northern Gaza had requested help with evacuating patients and that planning for that was under way, expressing regret that doing so would rob people of a lifeline.
Hospitals have come under bombardment in the Israel-Hamas conflict and all hospitals in the northern part of the enclave have effectively ceased functioning normally, although they continue to house some patients that could not flee and displaced Gazans.
“We’re looking at three hospitals right now in the north that asked to be evacuated but the important point is where to? There is no safe space,” WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told a Geneva press briefing, saying that southern hospitals were already full and suffering shortages.
He said the requests came from hospital staff who feared for their lives.
“That means the situation on the ground has grown so dire that the only other alternative is facing what they think is certain death as the hospitals are under attack …,” he said.
“Taking away health care from people, is taking away the last resort, it’s taking away the last piece of humanity. And that’s what is happening right now.”
The three hospitals were Al Shifa, from which a group of babies has already been rescued, Indonesian Hospital and Al Ahli Hospital, he said. “So far it’s only in planning stages with no further details,” he added, saying it required close co-ordination with parties to the conflict to ensure the convoy does not come under fire as happened to the International Red Cross and French medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres.
At the same briefing, the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF) warned of the risk of “mass disease outbreak” that could cause child death rates to mount in the densely populated enclave where thousands of people are crammed into overcrowded shelters.
“If children’s access to water and sanitation in Gaza continue to be restricted and insufficient, we will see a tragic – yet entirely avoidable – surge in the number of children dying,” said UNICEF spokesperson James Elder.
Already, cases of diarrhea in children under five years old have surged to 10 times the pre-conflict monthly average, he said.
The World Food Programme’s Arif Husain said that people in Gaza were receiving just 1-3 liters of water a day, far below international standards for emergencies. No bottled water has arrived for displaced people in northern Gaza for over a week, he said, raising serious concerns about dehydration.
Around two-thirds of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have since been made homeless, with thousands a day trekking south on foot with belongings and children in their arms. The central and southern parts of the enclave, where Israel has told them to go, have also regularly come under attack.
A day and a night of rain and cold winter weather worsened the dire conditions in the Gaza Strip for the displaced, many thousands of whom are sleeping rough or in makeshift tents.
Gaza health authorities said earlier on Tuesday at least 20 Palestinians were killed in an Israeli bombing of the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza at midnight. There was no immediate comment from Israel.
The already crowded Nuseirat district, which grew out of a camp for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, is just south of wetlands that bisect the narrow, coastal strip and has been the arrival point for huge numbers escaping the fighting in the urbanized north.
Israeli bombing in southern areas leaves Gazans fearing they have no place safe to go. Neighbouring Egypt has allowed the evacuation of some wounded and foreign passport holders, but says it will not accept a forced, mass exodus.
Miller, the U.S. State Department spokesperson, said Washington was having “fairly detailed conversations” with Israel about what steps it could take to avoid harming civilians and ease aid deliveries if it goes ahead with an anticipated extension of its military campaign into south Gaza.
Despite an Israeli order to flee for their own safety, tens of thousands of civilians are believed to remain in north Gaza – wide swathes of which Israel says its forces now control but where Hamas militants, deeply embedded within the population, are waging guerrilla-style war in fiercely contested pockets.
Separate Israeli strikes on southern Lebanon on Tuesday killed eight people, including two journalists working for a Lebanese TV channel and a senior Hamas official, according to Lebanese state media and official sources.
The deaths bring those killed in Lebanon since the beginning of hostilities along the border to more than 80 people, mostly fighters from the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah.
Violence along the border broke out after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack. Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah – a Hamas ally – have exchanged rocket fire in fighting that has steadily escalated.
Lebanese broadcaster Al Mayadeen said an Israeli strike on Tuesday near the town of Tir Harfa, about a mile from the Israeli frontier, had killed two of its journalists and a third person at the site where they were filming.
Al Mayadeen accused Israel of deliberately targeting the TV crew because the channel was known to be pro-Palestinian and pro-Iran’s regional military alliance.
Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said in a statement that the strike was an Israeli attempt to silence the media, adding there were “no limits to Israeli crimes.”
Israel’s military said it was “aware of a claim regarding journalists … who were killed as a result of (Israeli army) fire.
“This is an area with active hostilities, where exchange of fire occur. Presence in the area is dangerous,” it said.
The Israeli military has previously said it cannot guarantee journalists’ safety in areas where it is fighting. Israeli authorities have sought to block Al Mayadeen’s websites and seize equipment linked to the station.
Hezbollah said it had retaliated over the killing of the journalists by firing at an Israeli base across the border.
Another Israeli strike on a car about seven miles (11 km) from the border and near the southern city of Tyre killed four people later in the day, Lebanon’s state media reported.
Hamas identified one victim as one of its members, saying he was killed while “carrying out his duty” in southern Lebanon. Two Palestinian sources said he was a senior member of the armed wing of Hamas in Lebanon.
An elderly woman was also killed in an Israeli strike on Tuesday morning, according to Lebanon’s state media.
Israel-Lebanon border violence has escalated in recent days, raising fears of a widening war in the Middle East that could draw in both the United States and Iran.
It is the worst violence at the border since Israel and Hezbollah fought a war in 2006 and has so far killed more than 70 Hezbollah fighters, 13 Lebanese civilians, seven Israeli troops and three Israeli civilians.
Tuesday’s deaths add to a toll of more than 50 journalists killed covering the war between Israel and Hamas and its spillover to other parts of the region since Oct. 7, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Reuters visuals journalist Issam Abdallah was killed in southern Lebanon on Oct. 13.
Al Mayadeen named its killed journalists as correspondent Farah Omar and camera operator Rabie al-Memari. The third person killed was Hussein Aqil. Al Mayadeen told Reuters he was not working with the channel.
– With files from The Canadian Press