Israel uncovers major Hamas command center in Gaza City as ceasefire talks gain momentum

Israel uncovers major Hamas command center in Gaza City as ceasefire talks gain momentum
An Israeli military vehicle drives along the border with Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from southern Israel, December 20, 2023. (Reuters)
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Updated 21 December 2023
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Israel uncovers major Hamas command center in Gaza City as ceasefire talks gain momentum

Israel uncovers major Hamas command center in Gaza City as ceasefire talks gain momentum
  • The widespread destruction and heavy civilian death toll has drawn increasing international calls for a cease-fire

JERUSALEM: The Israeli military on Wednesday said it had uncovered a major Hamas command center in the heart of Gaza City, inflicting what it described as a serious blow to the Islamic militant group as pressure grows on Israel to scale back its devastating military offensive in the coastal enclave.
The army said it had exposed the center of a vast underground network used by Hamas to move weapons, militants and supplies throughout the Gaza Strip. Israel has said destroying the tunnels is a major objective of the offensive.
The announcement came as Hamas’ top leader arrived in Egypt for talks aimed at brokering a temporary ceasefire and a new deal for Hamas to swap Israeli hostages for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.
Israeli leaders have vowed to press ahead with the two-month-old offensive, launched in response to a bloody cross-border attack by Hamas in October that killed some 1,200 people and saw 240 others taken hostage.
The offensive has devastated much of northern Gaza, killed nearly 20,000 Palestinians, and driven some 1.9 million people — nearly 85 percent of the population — from their homes. The widespread destruction and heavy civilian death toll has drawn increasing international calls for a ceasefire.
The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has continued to support Israel’s right to defend itself while also urging greater effort to protect Gaza’s civilians.
But in some of the toughest American language yet, Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday called on Israel to scale back its operation.
“It’s clear that the conflict will move and needs to move to a lower intensity phase,” Blinken said. He said the US wants to see “more targeted operations” with smaller levels of forces focused on specific targets, such as Hamas’ leaders and the group’s tunnel network.
“As that happens, I think you’ll see as well, the harm done to civilians also decrease significantly,” he said.
His comments were more pointed than statements by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who in a visit to Israel this week said the US would not dictate any timeframes to its ally.
TUNNEL NETWORK
The Israeli military escorted Israeli reporters into Palestine Square in the heart of Gaza City to show off what it described as the center of Hamas’ tunnel network.
Military commanders boasted that they had uncovered offices, tunnels and elevators used by Hamas’ top leaders. The military released videos of underground offices and claimed to have found a wheelchair belonging to Hamas’ shadowy military commander, Mohammed Deif, who has not been seen in public in years.
The army’s chief spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said the army had located a vast underground complex. “They all used this infrastructure routinely, during emergencies and also at the beginning of the war on Oct. 7,” he said. He said the tunnels stretched across Gaza and into major hospitals. The claims could not be independently verified.
Hagari also indicated that Israel was winding down its operations in northern Gaza, including Gaza City, where it has been battling Hamas militants for weeks. He said the army had moved into a final remaining Hamas stronghold, the Gaza City neighborhood of Tufah.
But the army also acknowledged a significant misstep. An investigation into its soldiers’ mistaken shooting of three Israelis held hostage in Gaza found that, five days before the shooting, a military search dog with a body camera had captured audio of them shouting for help in Hebrew.
Hagari said the recording was not reviewed until after the hostages were killed while trying to make themselves known to Israeli forces.
The incident has sparked an uproar in Israel and put pressure on the government to reach a new deal with Hamas. The military chief has said the shooting was against its rules of engagement.
The Israeli military campaign now is largely focused on southern Gaza, where it says Hamas’ leaders are hiding.
“We will continue the war until the end. It will continue until Hamas is destroyed, until victory,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video statement. “Whoever thinks we will stop is detached from reality.”
CEASEFIRE TALKS GAIN MOMENTUM
As Netanyahu vowed to continue the war, there were new signs of progress in ceasefire talks.
Hamas’ top leader, Ismail Haniyeh, traveled to Cairo for talks on the war, part of a flurry of diplomacy. In recent days, top Israeli, American and Qatari officials have also held ceasefire talks.
“These are very serious discussions and negotiations, and we hope that they lead somewhere,” the White House’s national security spokesman, John Kirby, said aboard Air Force One while traveling with President Joe Biden to Wisconsin.
Biden, however, indicated a deal was still a ways off. “There’s no expectation at this point, but we are pushing,” he said. Asked about the rising death toll in Gaza, Biden said: It’s tragic.”
Hamas says no more hostages will be released until the war ends. It is insisting on the release of large numbers of Palestinian prisoners, including high-level militants convicted in deadly attacks, for remaining captives.
Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas official in Beirut, said the efforts right now are focused on how to “stop this aggression, especially that our enemy now knows that it cannot achieve any of its goals.”
Israel has rejected Hamas’ demands for a mass prisoner release so far. But it has a history of lopsided exchanges for captive Israelis, and the government is under heavy public pressure to bring the hostages home safely.
Egypt, along with Qatar and the US, helped mediate a weeklong ceasefire in November in which Hamas freed over 100 hostages in exchange for Israel’s release of 240 Palestinian prisoners. Hamas and other militants are still holding an estimated 129 captives, though roughly 20 are believed to have died in captivity.
UN Security Council members are negotiating an Arab-sponsored resolution to halt the fighting in some way to allow for an increase in desperately needed humanitarian aid deliveries to Gaza.
A vote on the resolution, first scheduled for Monday, was pushed back again on Wednesday in the hopes of getting the US to support it or allow it to pass after it vetoed an earlier cease-fire call.
HUMANITARIAN CRISIS
Mobile phone and Internet service was down across Gaza again on Wednesday. The outage could complicate efforts to communicate with Hamas leaders inside the territory who went into hiding after Oct. 7.
The war has led to a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Tens of thousands of people are crammed into shelters and tent camps amid shortages of food, medicine and other basic supplies. Israel’s foreign minister traveled to Cyprus to discuss the possibility of establishing a maritime corridor that would allow the delivery of large amounts of humanitarian aid to Gaza.
At least 46 people were killed and more than 100 wounded early Wednesday after Israel bombarded the urban Jabaliya refugee camp near Gaza City, according to Munir Al-Bursh, a senior Health Ministry official.
At least five people were killed and dozens injured in another strike that hit three residential homes and a mosque in Gaza’s southern city of Rafah Wednesday, health officials said.
The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said Tuesday the death toll since the start of the war had risen to more than 19,600. It does not distinguish between civilian and combatant deaths.
Israel’s military says 134 of its soldiers have been killed in the Gaza ground offensive. Israel says it has killed some 7,000 militants, without providing evidence. It blames civilian deaths in Gaza on Hamas, saying it uses them as human shields when it fights in residential areas.


Algerian reporter says he was expelled from his country without explanation

Algerian reporter says he was expelled from his country without explanation
Updated 6 sec ago
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Algerian reporter says he was expelled from his country without explanation

Algerian reporter says he was expelled from his country without explanation
  • Farid Alilat wrote on Facebook he spent 11 hours in police custody at the airport before being boarded onto a plane and sent to France

ALGIERS: An Algerian journalist was expelled from the country after flying in from France and not being allowed to leave the airport as journalists continue to face challenges reporting in Algeria.

Farid Alilat, a writer for the French-language magazine Jeune Afrique, wrote on Facebook that he spent 11 hours in police custody on Saturday at the airport before being boarded onto a plane and sent to France, where he has a residency permit.

Alilat said he regularly takes flights from Paris to Algiers to report on Algeria, where he has for years been a well-known journalist due to his work for French-language daily newspapers including Liberté, which was shuttered in 2022 amid financial problems and scuffles with the government and Algeria’s state-owned oil company, both of which are major advertisers for the country’s newspapers.

In a lengthy post in which he wrote of his deportation as if he were reporting on it, Alilat alleged that police officers on the tarmac in Algiers told him that they were acting on orders “from above.”

He said he was interrogated about his travels, who he has met with and about Jeune Afrique, which Algerian authorities believe favors their neighbor and regional rival, Morocco. Few Algerian media outlets reported on Alilat’s expulsion and few politicians commented on it. Former Communications Minister Abdelaziz Rahabi called it “a measure from another era that serves neither the people nor the government.”

“No one can be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter their own country,” he wrote on Facebook.

The episode is the latest instance of Algeria’s government restricting journalists from reporting in Algeria and comes while high-profile journalists, including editors Ihsane El Kadi and Mustapha Benjama remain in prison on charges related to using foreign funds to finance journalism and disrupting public order. The government, however, has also resumed granting authorizations to journalists starting new media outlets or television shows and last year passed a law enshrining new protections for journalists.


Israeli tanks push back in northern Gaza Strip, warplanes hit Rafah

Israeli tanks push back in northern Gaza Strip, warplanes hit Rafah
Updated 16 min 9 sec ago
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Israeli tanks push back in northern Gaza Strip, warplanes hit Rafah

Israeli tanks push back in northern Gaza Strip, warplanes hit Rafah
  • Israel obstructing access to victims of Hamas Oct. 7 attack: UN probe

GENEVA/CAIRO: Israeli tanks pushed back into some areas of the northern Gaza Strip on Tuesday which they had left weeks ago, while warplanes conducted airstrikes on Rafah, the Palestinians’ last refuge in the south of the territory, killing and wounding several people, medics and residents said.

Residents reported an internet outage in the areas of Beit Hanoun and Jabalia in northern Gaza. 

Tanks advanced into Beit Hanoun and surrounded some schools where displaced families have taken refuge, said the residents and media outlets of the militant Palestinian group Hamas.

“Occupation soldiers ordered all families inside the schools and the nearby houses where the tanks had advanced to evacuate. 

The soldiers detained many men,” one resident of northern Gaza said via a chat app.

Beit Hanoun, home to 60,000 people, was one of the first areas targeted by Israel’s ground offensive in Gaza last October. 

Heavy bombardment turned most of Beit Hanoun, once known as “the basket of fruit” because of its orchards, into a ghost town comprising piles of rubble.

Many families who had returned to Beit Hanoun and Jabalia in recent weeks after Israeli forces withdrew, began moving out again on Tuesday because of the new raid, some residents said.

Palestinian health officials said in one strike, Israel killed four people and wounded several others in Rafah, where over half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are sheltering and bracing for a planned Israeli ground offensive into the city, which borders Egypt.

The Israeli military said its forces continued to operate in the central Gaza Strip and that they had killed several gunmen who attempted to attack them.

“Furthermore, over the past day, IDF fighter jets and aircraft destroyed a missile launcher along with dozens of terrorist infrastructure, terror tunnels, and military compounds where armed Hamas terrorists were located,” it added.

In Al-Nusseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, residents said Israeli planes had bombed and destroyed four multi-story residential buildings on Tuesday.

Israel is still imposing “unlawful” restrictions on humanitarian relief for Gaza, the UN human rights office said on Tuesday, despite assertions from Israel and others that barriers have eased.

The amount of aid now entering Gaza is disputed, with Israel and Washington saying aid flows have risen in recent days but UN agencies say it is still far below bare minimum levels.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said 33,843 Palestinians have so far been killed by Israeli fire since Oct. 7, including 46 in the past 24 hours.

Israel is preventing UN investigators from speaking to witnesses and victims of the Oct. 7 attack, former UN rights chief Navi Pillay, who is chairing a three-person probe, said.

The unprecedented Commission of Inquiry was established by the UN Human Rights Council in May 2021 to investigate alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

“I deplore the fact that people inside Israel who wish to speak to us are being denied that opportunity, because we cannot get access into Israel,” Pillay said.

The investigation briefed diplomats at the UN in Geneva on its work and said that since Oct. 7, it had focused on the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas.

“So far as the government of Israel is concerned, we have faced not merely a lack of cooperation but active obstruction of our efforts to receive evidence from Israeli witnesses and victims to the events that occurred in southern Israel,” said Chris Sidoti, one of the three members of the inquiry.

The Gaza war began with Hamas’s attack against Israel which resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli figures.

The militants also took about 250 hostages, of whom Israel estimates 129 remain in Gaza, including 34 who are presumed dead.

Pillay, 82, a South African former High Court judge, said the commission was investigating alleged crimes during the Hamas attack as well as some allegedly committed by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip and in the West Bank.

Sidoti, speaking via video-link, said the investigation had found it difficult to collect evidence from large numbers of witnesses.


Israel kills local Hezbollah commander in Lebanon strike

Men clean the reported site of an Israeli strike on vehicles in the southern Lebanese village of Shehabiya on April 16, 2024.
Men clean the reported site of an Israeli strike on vehicles in the southern Lebanese village of Shehabiya on April 16, 2024.
Updated 13 min 40 sec ago
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Israel kills local Hezbollah commander in Lebanon strike

Men clean the reported site of an Israeli strike on vehicles in the southern Lebanese village of Shehabiya on April 16, 2024.
  • Hezbollah said in a statement that Ismail Yusef Baz had been killed, without mentioning his rank or role
  • Aircraft also hit “Hezbollah military structures and terrorist operatives” elsewhere in south Lebanon on Tuesday, Israeli military said

BEIRUT: An Israeli strike Tuesday killed a local Hezbollah commander in south Lebanon, the Israeli army said, with the Iran-backed group saying three of its members were killed and launching rockets in retaliation.
Israel and Hamas ally Hezbollah have been exchanging near-daily cross-border fire since the Palestinian militant group attacked southern Israel on October 7, triggering war in the Gaza Strip.
Tuesday’s exchanges came with regional tensions high after Iran launched missile and drone attacks on Israel over the weekend in retaliation for a deadly Israeli strike on Tehran’s consulate in Damascus.
The Israeli military said its “aircraft struck and eliminated Ismail Yusef Baz, the commander of Hezbollah’s coastal sector,” adding he was killed in south Lebanon’s Ain Baal area.
Aircraft also hit “Hezbollah military structures and terrorist operatives” elsewhere in south Lebanon on Tuesday, it said in a separate statement.
Lebanon’s official National News Agency (NNA) reported one dead in an Israeli strike on a car in Ain Baal, about 15 kilometers (nine miles) from the border.
Hezbollah said in a statement that Baz had been killed, without mentioning his rank or role, while a source close to the group told AFP that “the field commander in charge of the Naqura region” had been killed “in an Israeli strike.”
The NNA also said an “enemy strike” targeted two cars in Shehabiya, about 10 kilometers from Ain Baal, reporting an unspecified number of dead and wounded.
Hezbollah later said that two more of its fighters had been killed, while its ally the Amal movement announced one dead in Ain Baal.
Hezbollah said it launched rockets at several Israeli military bases “in response to the Israeli enemy’s attacks” on Lebanese villages, in particular Ain Baal and Shehabiya.
Earlier Tuesday, Hezbollah had said its fighters launched an “air attack with suicide drones in two phases... striking the Iron Dome (air defense system) platforms and their crew” in the Beit Hillel area.
The Israeli military said “two armed” drones entered from Lebanon and exploded near Beit Hillel, with local Israeli authorities saying three people were wounded.
On Monday, Hezbollah targeted Israeli troops with explosive devices, wounding four soldiers who crossed into Lebanese territory, the first such attack in six months of clashes.
The violence has killed at least 368 people in Lebanon, mostly Hezbollah fighters but also including at least 70 civilians, according to an AFP tally.
In Israel, the military says 10 soldiers and eight civilians have been killed since hostilities began.
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled their homes on both sides of the border, with the violence fueling fears of all-out conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, which last went to war in 2006.


Gaza’s 2m Palestinians now a population of ‘survivors,’ UN humanitarian chief says

Gaza’s 2m Palestinians now a population of ‘survivors,’ UN humanitarian chief says
Updated 19 min 42 sec ago
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Gaza’s 2m Palestinians now a population of ‘survivors,’ UN humanitarian chief says

Gaza’s 2m Palestinians now a population of ‘survivors,’ UN humanitarian chief says
  • Andrea De Domenico says the situation in the territory during Israel’s continuing war against Hamas is ‘dire, tense and very volatile’
  • He warns it will ‘take years’ for Gaza’s 625,000 students to return to their studies as every university is destroyed and schools have been closed since the war began

LONDON: The 2 million Palestinians who live in the Gaza Strip can now be accurately described as a population of “survivors,” a UN humanitarian chief said on Tuesday.

Andrea De Domenico, head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, said the situation in Gaza during Israel’s continuing war against Hamas is “dire, tense and very volatile.”

The OCHA is “making all effort possible” to deliver aid to the territory, he added, but “the reality is that there is very little that we can bring to inside Gaza to tackle displacement and battle the looming famine.”

De Domenico said that if the widely predicted famine in Gaza comes to pass, it would be “completely man-made and preventable.”

He added that while there have been recent additional efforts by the UN, and by the Israelis “to some extent,” to increase the amount of aid entering northern Gaza, the worst-affected part of the territory, the situation would require a “massive operation” simply to reach the “minimum standard” of aid that is needed, which is something the OCHA is not in a position to mount at this time.

On Sunday, the agency said Israel “impeded or denied access” to 41 percent of UN-coordinated aid missions in northern Gaza between April 6 and 12.

A plume of smoke billows during Israeli bombardment at Al-Daraj neighbourhood in Gaza City on April 16 amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)

De Domenico also highlighted the “problematic situation” in and around hospitals in Gaza, especially at Al-Shifa where heavy fighting has caused widespread damage and destruction, which he said was proving to be another major obstacle to the delivery of aid and other relief supplies.

“Our team entered (Al-Shifa hospital) in the following days (after the fighting) and have had to deal with a scene of terror; the hospital is completely dysfunctional at this moment,” he said.

“The number of bodies that have been buried in or on the premises of Al-Shifa, or around the hospital, has also been problematic, to the point that UN and Palestinian colleagues have helped the families to start to recognize the remnants of the corpses.”

Also on Tuesday, it was revealed that relentless Israeli airstrikes have destroyed every university in Gaza. This, coupled with the fact that all schools in the territory have been closed since Israel launched its military offensive in October, means it will “take years” for the enclave’s 625,000 students to return to their studies, De Domenico said.

On Monday, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Jamie McGoldrick, said about 800,000 Palestinians might be forced to flee Gaza if the Israeli military goes ahead with a threatened ground incursion in the southern city of Rafah, close to the border with Egypt, which has become the final refuge for hundreds of thousands of people displaced by fighting in other parts of the territory.

He added that about 90 percent of approximately 4,000 buildings located along Gaza’s eastern border with Israel have been destroyed or damaged during the war, according to the UN Satellite Center.


Jordan completes six more airdrops of aid to northern Gaza

Jordan completes six more airdrops of aid to northern Gaza
Updated 57 min 7 sec ago
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Jordan completes six more airdrops of aid to northern Gaza

Jordan completes six more airdrops of aid to northern Gaza
  • Jordan has carried out 84 humanitarian airdrops independently, 190 in collaboration with other countries

AMMAN: Jordan’s armed forces completed another six airdrops of food aid to the northern Gaza Strip on Tuesday.

The humanitarian operation was carried out by the Royal Jordanian Air Force, using aircraft provided by Egypt, the US and Germany, the Jordan News Agency reported.

Since the start of Israel's war on Gaza in October, Jordan has completed 84 humanitarian airdrops of its own and 190 in collaboration with other countries.

During an interview with CNN in March, Queen Rania explained why authorities in the country had decided to take action to help people in an area the UN reports to be suffering from the effects of a widespread and severe food crisis.

“We found that after trying so hard in vain to persuade Israel to open the land-access points, we had to do something. We couldn’t just sit idle and watch people starving,” she said.

The airdrops are desperate measures to address a desperate situation, the queen added, describing them as mere “drops in an ocean of unmet needs.”

The Jordanian army said it remains committed to assisting efforts to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza, in solidarity with the Palestinian people.