US says Israel agrees to daily pauses in Gaza campaign but attacks rage on
PHOTO CAPTION: Israeli Lt. Col. Ido walks through a damaged bedroom, which is located, as he claims, above a workshop that was used for weapon production inside a residential building amid the ongoing ground invasion against Palestinian Islamist group Hamas in the northern Gaza Strip, November 8, 2023. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Steve Holland
GAZA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The White House said on Thursday that Israel agreed to pause military operations in parts of north Gaza for four hours a day, but there was no sign of a let-up in the fighting that has killed thousands and laid waste to the seaside enclave.
The pauses, which would allow people to flee along two humanitarian corridors and could be used for the release of hostages, were significant first steps, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested any pauses would be scattered, and there was no official confirmation of a plan for recurring breaks.
Asked if there would be a "stoppage" in fighting, Netanyahu said on the Fox News Channel: "No. The fighting continues against the Hamas enemy, the Hamas terrorists, but in specific locations for a given period of a few hours here or a few hours there, we want to facilitate the safe passage of civilians away from the zone of fight and we're doing that."
On the ground in northern Gaza, there were no reports of a lull in fighting. Israeli forces have encircled Gaza City and its tanks are advancing into the heart of the city as they hunt Hamas militants. Each side reported inflicting heavy casualties on the other in intense street battles.
Israeli officials spoke more generally of measures that appeared to correspond to arrangements already in place. In recent days, Israel has allowed civilians safe passage along the main Gaza route south for three or four hours each day. The White House's comments suggested a second route would be opened.
"We are undertaking localised and pinpoint measures to enable the exit of Palestinian civilians from Gaza City southward, so that we do not harm them. These things do not detract from the war fighting," Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said.
In an evening press briefing, chief Israeli military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said troops breached what he described as a "Hamas security quarter" in north Gaza that included command centres, munitions manufacturing plants and other posts.
"We fought and eliminated over 50 terrorists. We found many weapons. We also found a lot of intelligence material that we will take and study. We continued to clear this area and other areas," Hagari said.
U.N. SAYS PAUSES NEED TO BE COORDINATED
U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said any program for breaks in fighting would need to be coordinated with the United Nations "especially on the issue of timings and location."
"And obviously, in order for this to be done safely for humanitarian purposes, it would have to be agreed with all parties to the conflict to be truly effective," he said.
Israel unleashed its assault on Gaza in response to a cross-border Hamas raid on southern Israel on Oct. 7 in which gunmen killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and took about 240 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. Israel says it has lost 33 soldiers in Gaza.
Palestinian officials said 10,812 Gaza residents had been killed as of Thursday, about 40% of them children, in air and artillery strikes. A humanitarian catastrophe has unfolded as basic supplies run out and wounded people overwhelm a fragile medical system.
Barbara Leaf, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, told a congressional committee on Wednesday that the Gaza deaths could be "even higher than are being cited. We'll know only after the guns fall silent."
Health officials and aid organizations in Gaza say the death toll will likely increase further as rescuers remove more bodies from the rubble of destroyed buildings.
Earlier a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the heads of the CIA and Israel's Mossad intelligence agency met with the Qatari prime minister in Doha on Thursday to discuss the parameters of a deal for hostage releases and a pause in Hamas-Israel fighting.
In northern Gaza, Israeli forces inched closer to two big hospitals where civilians have sought refuge, packing into the Al Shifa Hospital and al-Quds Hospital amid ground battles and Israeli airstrikes.
Israel, which has vowed to eliminate Hamas, says the group is using Al Shifa to hide command posts and entry points into an extensive tunnel network under Gaza, something Hamas and the hospital deny.
Israel's advance raised questions about what its plans might be when it reaches the hospital. While it is using explosives to destroy Hamas' tunnels elsewhere, international laws call for protection of medical facilities and displaced people sheltering there.
HARROWING SCENES FOR THOSE FLEEING
In Paris, officials from about 80 countries and organisations were meeting to coordinate humanitarian aid to Gaza and find ways to help wounded civilians escape the siege, now in its second month.
"Without a ceasefire, lifting of siege and indiscriminate bombarding and warfare, the haemorrhage of human lives will continue," Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said.
Israel and its main backer, the United States, say a full ceasefire would benefit Hamas, and Israel's defence minister reiterated on Thursday there would be no ceasefire.
Civilians fleeing from north to south Gaza on Thursday told of a harrowing journey. "We saw decomposed bodies, people from civilian cars, civilians like us, not military cars or resistance men," Khaled Abu Issa said after crossing into the south with his family at Wadi Gaza.
Tensions have also soared on other fault lines. Lebanese Islamist group Hezbollah said it fired missiles over the border into Israel, and Israel's military said it responded with artillery fire.
An unidentified drone hit a civilian building in the southern Israeli city of Eilat on Thursday and caused light damage, Israel's military said, and Yemen's Houthi movement said it fired ballistic missiles toward the Red Sea port city.
Ten Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in a raid on Jenin city and refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian health ministry said. Israel's military said it was conducting counter-terrorism raids.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Maytaal Angel, Emily Rose and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Rami Amichay in Tel Aviv, Matt Spetalnick and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington, and other Reuters bureaus; Writing by Angus MacSwan, Andrew Heavens and Cynthia Osterman; Editing by Peter Graff, Nick Macfie and Howard Goller)