Prisoner deal ‘edges closer’ despite fierce fighting in Gaza

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Hamas fighters battled Israeli forces trying to push into Gaza’s largest refugee camp on Sunday, but despite the fighting, US, Qatari and Israeli officials said a deal to free some of the prisoners being held in the besieged enclave was edging closer.
Separately, a top health official said all 31 premature babies at Al Shifa Hospital had been evacuated on Sunday from the facility. A deal to free some of the about 240 prisoners Hamas seized in its Oct 7 attack on Israel now hinges on “minor” practical issues, Qatar’s prime minister said on Sunday, without giving details or a timeline. “The challenges that remain in the negotiations are very minor compared to the bigger challenges, they are more logistical, they are more practical,” Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani told a joint press conference with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. “The deal is going through ups and downs from time to time throughout the last few weeks,” the premier said. “I think that I’m now more confident that we are close enough to reach a deal that can bring the people safely back to their homes.”

Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Herzog said Tel Aviv was hopeful that a significant number of prisoners could be released by Hamas “in coming days”.

“I’m hopeful we can have a deal in the coming days,” he said in an interview on ABC’s This Week on Sunday.

A White House official also said the “very complicated, very sensitive” negotiations were making progress.

“I believe we are closer than we have been in quite some time, maybe closer than we have been since the beginning of this process, to getting this deal done,” White House deputy national security adviser Jon Finer told NBC’s “Meet the Press”.

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas in response to the Oct 7 attacks, which Israeli officials say killed about 1,200 people and saw the prisoners taken.

The army’s relentless air and ground campaign has since killed thousands of people in the Gaza Strip. The Hamas government said on Sunday the death toll in the enclave has reached 13,000 since Oct 7.

More than 5,500 children are among the dead, alongside 3,500 women, with 30,000 more people wounded.

The civilian death toll in Gaza was “staggering and unacceptable”, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, again appealing for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.

Since Oct 7, Israeli troops and settlers have also killed more than 200 Palestinians in the West Bank.

31 premature babies evacuated

Mohammed Zaqut, director general of hospitals in Gaza, told AFP that “all 31 premature babies in Al Shifa hospital… have been evacuated” along with three doctors and two nurses.

“Preparations are under way” for them to enter Egypt, he added.

The move was confirmed by the Palestinian

Red Crescent Society (PCRS), which said its teams carried out the evacuation in coordination with UN agencies, including the World Health Organisation.

Al Shifa Hospital has become a focal point for Israeli operations with the army claiming Hamas uses it as a base. Since Nov 11, when fuel supplies ran out at Al Shifa, eight babies have died due to the lack of electricity to run incubator units, the health ministry in Gaza has said.

Three Israeli soldiers killed

The Israeli army said on Sunday three more soldiers had been killed in fighting in the Gaza Strip, raising the number of troop deaths there to 62 since the Oct 7 attacks. All three were reservists and died on Saturday in northern Gaza, the military said in a statement.

Witnesses reported heavy fighting overnight on Sunday between Hamas fighters and Israeli forces trying to advance into Jabalia, the largest of Gaza’s camps with nearly 100,000 people.

Via social media in Arabic, Israel’s military on Sunday urged residents of several Jabalia neighbourhoods to evacuate towards south Gaza “to preserve your safety” and to that end said it would pause military action from 10am to 2pm.

After the “pause” period expired, 11 Palestinians in Jabalia were killed by an Israeli air strike on a house, the enclave’s health ministry said.

Israel also said on Sunday that Yemen’s

Houthis had seized a British-owned and Japanese-operated cargo ship in the southern Red Sea, describing the incident as an “Iranian act of terrorism” with consequences for international maritime security.

Meanwhile, top foreign policy officials from the Palestinian Authority and four Muslim-majority countries will visit China on Monday and Tuesday, Beijing announced on Sunday.

Officials will include the foreign ministers of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Indonesia, as well as the secretary-general of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

“During the visit, China will have in-depth communication and coordination with the joint delegation of foreign ministers of Arab and Islamic countries to promote a de-escalation of the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict, protecting civilians, and justly resolving the Palestinian issue,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said in a statement.