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.


Weapons experts: US-supplied bomb used in Israeli strike of Gaza ‘safe zone’

Weapons experts: US-supplied bomb used in Israeli strike of Gaza ‘safe zone’
Updated 7 sec ago
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Weapons experts: US-supplied bomb used in Israeli strike of Gaza ‘safe zone’

Weapons experts: US-supplied bomb used in Israeli strike of Gaza ‘safe zone’
  • A sliver of munition seen in a video of the blast site circulating online was a tail fin from a US-made Joint Direct Attack Munition
  • Former US Army explosive ordnance disposal technician: ‘it’s 100 percent a JDAM kit’ made in the United States
JERUSALEM: Israel’s deadly strike on Al-Mawasi, one of the bloodiest attacks in more than nine months of war in Gaza, used massive payload bombs provided by the United States, according to weapons experts.
The bombing of the Israeli-declared “safe zone” transformed the tent city on the Mediterranean coast into a charred wasteland, with nearby hospitals overrun with casualties.
According to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory, the barrage killed at least 92 people and wounded more than 300.
The Israeli military said it targeted two “masterminds” of the October 7 attacks by Hamas that triggered the war. It said a top commander, Rafa Salama, was killed in the strike, but uncertainty remains over Hamas military chief Mohammed Deif.
AFP videos of the attack showed a white mushroom cloud billowing over a busy street, leaving behind a huge crater strewn with the wreckage of tents and a building blown to bits.
Here is what we know about the weaponry used in the attack:
Two weapons experts said that a sliver of munition seen in a video of the blast site circulating online was a tail fin from a US-made Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). AFP could not independently verify the video.
The GPS-aided kit converts unguided free-fall bombs — so-called “dumb bombs” — into precision-guided “smart” munitions that can be directed toward single or multiple targets.
The United States developed the kit to improve accuracy in adverse weather after Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
The first JDAMs were delivered in 1997 and, according to the US Air Force, have a 95 percent system reliability.
Trevor Ball, a former US Army explosive ordnance disposal technician, concluded from images of the Al-Mawasi strike “it’s 100 percent a JDAM kit” made in the United States.
He said that given the types of bombs compatible with the guidance system and the size of the fin fragment, the JDAM was most likely used with either a 1,000 or 2,000 pound (450 or 900 kilogram) payload.
He said the fragment could also be compatible with the BLU-109 “bunker buster” warhead, which is designed to penetrate concrete.
Ball said it was not possible to definitively determine where the payload itself was made without “very specific fragments of the bomb body.”
Repeated use of such large bombs in the densely populated Gaza Strip has sparked humanitarian outcry and heaped pressure on US President Joe Biden to reconsider the munitions supplied to Israel.
On July 12, Israel’s main military backer announced it was ending a pause on supplying 500-pound bombs, though Biden said the 2,000-pound type would be withheld.
The White House has repeatedly voiced frustration over the civilian death toll in Gaza as Israel attempts to eradicate Hamas.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told two top Israeli officials on Monday that the civilian toll was “unacceptably high,” his spokesman said.
Israeli officials said their “precise strike” in Al-Mawasi hit an open area that housed a Hamas compound and not a civilian camp.
When contacted by AFP regarding the weapons used, the Israeli military declined to comment.
Based on Israel’s stated target, Wes Bryant, a retired US Air Force master sergeant and strike and joint targeting expert, said it would have been feasible to avoid collateral damage in the surrounding area.
“My assessment is that any civilians killed in this strike were in the compound — not in the surrounding vicinity. So the IDF either failed to assess presence of civilians, or... deemed the risk to civilians proportional to the military advantage of taking out the Hamas leaders.”
The strike left Al-Mawasi a scene of “absolute destruction” with no water, electricity or sewage treatment, the Islamic Relief charity said.
It condemned Israel for its willingness “to kill innocent men, women and children in pursuit of its end goals.”
Hamas said that by arming Israel, the Biden administration is “legally and morally responsible” for spawning a “major humanitarian catastrophe.”
It said US-supplied weapons used by Israel included GPS-guided bombs, dumb bombs, bunker busters and JDAMs.
After repeated high-casualty strikes in recent days, a Hamas official said the group was withdrawing from indirect talks for a truce and hostage release deal with Israel.
The war was sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,195 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.
Israel responded with a military offensive that has killed at least 38,664 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-ruled territory’s health ministry.

Israel hits Gaza from land, sea and air as Hamas halts talks

Israel hits Gaza from land, sea and air as Hamas halts talks
Updated 43 min 59 sec ago
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Israel hits Gaza from land, sea and air as Hamas halts talks

Israel hits Gaza from land, sea and air as Hamas halts talks
  • Relentless bombardments come as prospects have dwindled for a truce and hostage release deal 
  • Israel's military offensive has killed at least 38,584 people in Gaza, according to its health ministry

GAZA STRIP: Israel hammered the Gaza Strip from the air, sea, and land Monday as the war in the Palestinian territory showed no sign of abating, with Hamas saying it was pulling out of truce talks.
Shells rained down on the neighborhoods of Tal Al-Hawa, Sheikh Ajlin, and Al-Sabra in Gaza City, AFP correspondents reported, while eyewitnesses said the Israeli army had shelled the Al-Mughraqa area and the northern outskirts of the Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza.
Paramedics from the Palestinian Red Crescent said they had retrieved the bodies of five people, including three children, after Israeli air strikes in the Al-Maghazi camp, also in the central Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, eyewitnesses reported Israeli gunship fire east of Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza, and shelling and Apache helicopter attacks in western areas of the southernmost city of Rafah.
The Israeli military said in a statement that it was continuing its activity throughout the coastal territory, and said it had conducted raids in Rafah and central Gaza that killed “a number of” militants, as well as air strikes throughout the strip over the past day.
It also said its naval forces had been firing at targets in Gaza.
The relentless bombardments came as prospects dwindled for a truce and hostage release deal being secured any time soon.
Hamas said on Sunday it was withdrawing from ceasefire talks.
The decision followed an Israeli strike targeting the head of Hamas’s military wing, Mohammed Deif, which the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said killed 92 people.
Deif’s fate remains unknown, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying there was “no certainty” he was dead while a senior Hamas official told AFP that Deif was “well and directly overseeing” operations.
Speaking after the strike on Al-Mawasi, a second senior official from the militant group cited Israeli “massacres” and its attitude to negotiations as a reason for suspending negotiations.
But according to the official, Haniyeh told international mediators Hamas was “ready to resume negotiations” when Israel’s government “demonstrates seriousness in reaching a ceasefire agreement and a prisoner exchange deal.”
Last week, US President Joe Biden had suggested a deal might be close, saying at a NATO summit that both sides had agreed to a framework he had set out in late May.
Hamas on Monday lashed out at the US, accusing it of supporting “genocide” by supplying Israel with “internationally banned” weapons.
“We condemn in the strongest terms the... American disdain for the blood of the children and women of our Palestinian people... by providing all types of prohibited weapons to the ‘Israeli’ occupation,” a statement from the Hamas government media office said.
Talks between the warring parties have been mediated by Qatar and Egypt, with US support, but months of negotiations have failed to bring a breakthrough.
The war was sparked by Hamas’s surprise October 7 attack on southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,195 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.
The militants also seized 251 hostages, 116 of whom are still in Gaza including 42 the Israeli military says are dead.
Israel responded with a military offensive that has killed at least 38,584 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to data provided by the Gaza health ministry.
The war and accompanying siege have devastated the Palestinian territory, destroying much of its infrastructure, leaving the majority of its 2.4 million residents displaced and causing a dire shortage of food, medicines and other basic goods.
Among the devastated facilities have been multiple schools. On Sunday, Israeli forces struck a UN-run school in Nuseirat camp that was being used as a shelter for displaced people but which the military said “served as a hideout” for militants.
The civil defense agency in Gaza said 15 people were killed in the strike, the fifth attack in just over a week to hit a school used as shelter by displaced Palestinians.


Four killed, several wounded by gunfire near mosque in Oman: local police 

Four killed, several wounded by gunfire near mosque in Oman: local police 
Updated 16 July 2024
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Four killed, several wounded by gunfire near mosque in Oman: local police 

Four killed, several wounded by gunfire near mosque in Oman: local police 

RIYADH: Four people were killed and several wounded by gunfire in the vicinity of a mosque in Oman’s Wadi Al-Kabir, the Omani Police said on X early Tuesday.

“All security measures have been taken to deal with the situation. Evidence-gathering and investigation procedures will continue,” the police said.

The omani force expressed condolences to the families of the victims and wished the injured a speedy recovery. 


US military confirms Houthi attacks on vessels in Red Sea

US military confirms Houthi attacks on vessels in Red Sea
Updated 16 July 2024
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US military confirms Houthi attacks on vessels in Red Sea

US military confirms Houthi attacks on vessels in Red Sea

WASHINGTON: Houthis launched multiple attacks in the Red Sea against MT Bentley I, which was carrying vegetable oil from Russia to China, and also attacked the Chios Lion tanker ship, the U.S. military said on X on Monday.
 

 


Israeli drone strike along Lebanon-Syria border kills Syrian businessman close to the government

Vehicles drive along a road, on the day of the parliamentary elections, in Damascus, Syria July 15, 2024. (REUTERS)
Vehicles drive along a road, on the day of the parliamentary elections, in Damascus, Syria July 15, 2024. (REUTERS)
Updated 16 July 2024
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Israeli drone strike along Lebanon-Syria border kills Syrian businessman close to the government

Vehicles drive along a road, on the day of the parliamentary elections, in Damascus, Syria July 15, 2024. (REUTERS)
  • Israel, which has vowed to stop Iranian entrenchment in its northern neighbor, has carried out hundreds of strikes on targets in government-controlled parts of Syria in recent years, but it rarely acknowledges them

BEIRUT: An Israeli drone strike on a car Monday near the Lebanon-Syria border killed a prominent Syrian businessman who was sanctioned by the United States and had close ties to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to pro-government media and an official from an Iran-backed group.
Mohammed Baraa Katerji was killed when a drone strike hit his car near the area of Saboura, a few kilometers or miles inside Syria after apparently crossing from Lebanon. Israel’s air force has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in recent years, mainly targeting members of Iran-backed groups and Syria’s military. But it has been rare to hit personalities from within the government.
The strike also came as Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group have been exchanging fire on an almost daily basis since early October, after the start of the Israel-Hamas war.
An official from an Iran-backed group said that Katerji was killed instantly while in his SUV on the highway linking Lebanon with Syria. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.
The pro-government Al-Watan daily quoted unnamed “sources” as saying that Katerji, 48, was killed in a “Zionist drone strike on his car.” It gave no further details.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based opposition war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that Katerji was killed while in a car with Lebanese license plates, adding that he was apparently targeted because he used to fund the “Syrian resistance” against Israel in the Golan Heights, as well as his links to Iran-backed groups in Syria.
Israel, which has vowed to stop Iranian entrenchment in its northern neighbor, has carried out hundreds of strikes on targets in government-controlled parts of Syria in recent years, but it rarely acknowledges them.
The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, sanctioned Katerji in 2018 as Assad’s middleman to trade oil with the Daesh group and for facilitating weapons shipments from Iraq to Syria.
The US Treasury declined Associated Press requests for comment. The sanctions imposed on Katerji were authorized under an Obama-era executive order issued in 2011 that prohibits certain transactions with Syria. A search of the OFAC database indicates that the sanctions were still in effect against Katerji and his firm at the time of his death.
OFAC said in 2018 that Katerji was responsible for import and export activities in Syria and assisted with transporting weapons and ammunition under the pretext of importing and exporting food items. These shipments were overseen by the US­ designated Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, according to OFAC.
It added that the Syria-based Katerji Company is a trucking company that has also shipped weapons from Iraq to Syria. Additionally, in a 2016 trade deal between the government of Syria and IS, the Katerji Company was identified as the exclusive agent for providing supplies to IS-controlled areas, including oil and other commodities.
Katerji and his brother, Hussam — widely referred to in Syria as the “Katerji brothers” — got involved in oil business a few years after the country’s conflict began in March 2011. Hussam Katerji is a former member of Syria’s parliament.