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Israel deepens its operation in Gaza City, as pockets of militancy confront the military

Palestinians walk past the building destroyed in the Israeli Bombardment of the Gaza Strip in Gaza City, Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Mohammed Hajjar) Palestinians walk past the building destroyed in the Israeli Bombardment of the Gaza Strip in Gaza City, Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Mohammed Hajjar)
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DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip -

Israeli forces deepened an operation in the Gaza Strip's largest city in what the military said was meant to weed out militants, sending thousands of Palestinians fleeing on Monday from an area already ravaged in the early weeks of the nine-month-long war.

The incursion into the eastern part of Gaza City expands Israel’s engagement in the northern part of the beleaguered territory, an area Israel said it had seized control of months ago yet which has seen pockets of militant resurgence that have scaled back Israeli military gains and drawn forces back into such operations. Israel had ordered evacuations in the area before the raid was launched, the military said.

Heavy fighting in the area in the initial weeks of the war all but emptied out Gaza City and its environs, and the Israeli military has prevented most people from returning to their homes there. But several hundred thousands of Palestinians remain in the area, living in the shells of their homes or shelters. The fresh fighting meant new displacement for many residents there.

“We fled in the darkness amid heavy strikes,” said Sayeda Abdel-Baki, a mother of three children who was sheltering at her relatives’ home in the Daraj neighborhood of Gaza City. “This is my fifth displacement.”

Residents reported artillery and tank fire in the area, as well as airstrikes. The Gaza Health Ministry, which has limited access to northern Gaza, did not immediately report casualties. The Hamas-run Civil Defense also did not disclose casualty numbers immediately, saying the area was inaccessible because of the fierce clashes.

The fighting comes as Israel and Hamas appeared to be the closest they have been in months to agreeing to a cease-fire deal that would bring a pause in the war in exchange for the release of dozens of Israelis held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

But obstacles remained, even after Hamas agreed days ago to relent on its key demand that Israel commit to ending the war as part of any agreement. A key part of that shift in its stance, officials told The Associated Press, is the level of destruction in the Gaza Strip caused by Israel’s intense bombing campaign.

Hamas does however want to include in the deal that the meditators “guarantee” that negotiations conclude with a permanent cease-fire deal, according to two officials with knowledge of the talks. The current draft says that the mediators — the United States, Qatar and Egypt — “will do their best” to ensure that the negotiations lead to an agreement to wind down the war.

That could remain a sticking point for Israel, which has rejected any deal that would force it to end the war with Hamas still intact — a condition reiterated Sunday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The officials said that another term that remains at an impasse is whether Hamas should be allowed to choose the high-profile prisoners held by Israel that it wants released as part of the deal. Some of the veteran prisoners were convicted of serious crimes against Israelis and Israel opposes letting Hamas determine those who are to be freed.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive talks with the media.

While diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the war were ramping up, people in Gaza were seeing no end in sight to their suffering.

Residents fleeing eastern Gaza Strip neighborhoods early Monday said Israel was carrying out heavy strikes on the area, which prompted some Palestinians sheltering in neighborhoods that were not under evacuation orders to seek refuge elsewhere.

Maha Mahfouz fled her home along with her two children and many neighbors in Gaza City’s Zaytoun neighborhood. She said their area was not included in evacuation orders but “we are panicked because the bombing and gunfire are very close to us.”

Fadel Naeem, the director of the Al-Ahli hospital said patients and their companions fled the facility in panic even though there was no specific evacuation for the area around the hospital. He said people had “left for fear of the worst,” adding that patients in critical condition had been evacuated to other hospitals in northern Gaza.

The Israeli military said it launched the operation after it received intelligence that showed the area was housing militants from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group as well as weapons and investigation and detention rooms. The military said a facility belonging to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, was also being used by the militants, without providing evidence.

Mahmoud Bassal, a spokesman for the Hamas-linked civil defense department, said the neighborhoods of Tufah, Daraj, Shijaiyah — the latter still enduring an Israeli incursion launched last month — had become inaccessible because of intense Israeli bombing.

In a voice message late Sunday, he said the Israeli military shelled residential houses in the Jaffa area of Gaza City, and that first responders “saw people lying on the ground and were not able to retrieve them because of the bombing.”

The war has killed more than 38,000 people in the Gaza Strip, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians in its count. The fighting has decimated large swaths of Gaza's urban landscape, sparked a humanitarian catastrophe and displaced most of the territory's 2.3 million population.

The war erupted with Hamas' surprise cross-border raid on Oct. 7, which killed 1,200 people in southern Israel, most of them civilians, according to Israeli authorities. The militants took roughly 250 people hostage, and about 120 are still in captivity, with about a third of those said to be dead.

Magdy reported from Cairo. Melanie Lidman in Tel Aviv, Israel, contributed to this report.

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