© Reuters. Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli strike on a house, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip December 14, 2023. REUTERS/Sami Abu Tabak
By Nidal al-Mughrabi, Ibrahim Abu Mustafa and Dan Williams
CAIRO/GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -The head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency met Qatar’s prime minister in Europe late on Friday, according to a source with knowledge of the matter, as attention turned to a possible new Gaza truce and a prisoner and hostage deal.
Israel bombarded targets across Gaza on Saturday, but two Egyptian security sources said Israeli officials now appeared more willing to work towards a ceasefire and an exchange of Palestinian prisoners for Israeli hostages held by Hamas.
The meeting between David Barnea and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani was apparently the first between senior officials from Israel and Qatar, which has been acting as a mediator, since the collapse of a seven-day ceasefire in late November.
News of the meeting came after Israeli forces mistakenly killed three hostages held by Hamas in Gaza on Friday, putting increased pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to find a way to secure the release of more than 100 others held.
An Israeli military official said the hostages killed had been holding a white flag, according to an initial inquiry.
Netanyahu’s office said he would hold a televised press conference with Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on Saturday evening.
Combat has intensified in the past two weeks since the collapse of the truce that had allowed dozens of Israeli hostages held in Gaza to be released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israel.
Israeli forces bombarded targets across Gaza on Saturday including a crowded YMCA building, with dozens of Palestinians reported killed or wounded, despite a renewed U.S. call to scale down the campaign and focus on Hamas leaders.
Two Christian women who had taken refuge in a church complex in Gaza were shot dead by an Israeli soldier, Catholic Church authorities said. Seven other people were shot and wounded. There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military.
In Khan Younis in Gaza’s south, Palestinian health officials said the Nasser Hospital had received 20 Palestinians killed in air strikes overnight, in addition to dozens of wounded, including women and children.
Palestinian health officials also said Israeli strikes on Gaza City in the north had hit the YMCA headquarters, which is sheltering hundreds of displaced people and reported several dead and wounded.
The Israeli military said it was “operating to dismantle Hamas military and administrative capabilities”.
The official WAFA news agency said at least three dozen people had been killed in strikes on three houses in the Jabalia refugee camp, which health officials were unable to confirm.
Rescue workers believed some casualties remained buried under the rubble in some of those areas.
Gaza residents reported intense overnight fighting.
“The Gaza Strip turned into a ball of fire overnight, we could hear explosions and gunshots echoing from all directions,” Ahmed, 45, an electrician and father of six, told Reuters from a shelter in central Gaza.
Mohammad, 40, a resident of Khan Younis who has moved to the southern city of Rafah following Israeli evacuation orders, told Reuters by phone: “We want a full ceasefire, an end to the war and not a humanitarian pause.”
U.S. URGES ISRAEL TO NARROW ITS CAMPAIGN
President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has urged Israel to scale down its Gaza campaign and transition to more narrowly targeted operations against Hamas leaders, U.S. officials said.
Israeli officials publicly emphasised that they would continue the war until they eradicate Hamas. Washington appeared to acknowledge disagreement, as Sullivan said the timing was under “intensive discussion” between the allies.
The three hostages were killed in an area of intense combat where Hamas militants operate in civilian attire and use deception tactics, the official said, but the hostages were fired upon against Israel’s rules of engagement.
Israel, which said it recovered the bodies of three other hostages killed by Hamas, believes around 20 of more than 130 hostages still held in Gaza are dead.
The Israeli military said on Saturday that it had bombed a building in Jabalia from the air after its forces came under fire and Hamas militants were seen on the roof. It was unclear whether the building was one of those that WAFA said had been hit.
The military also said it had killed militants holed up in two school buildings in Gaza City, and raided apartments in Khan Younis stocked with weapons, uncovering what it described as underground infrastructure used by Hamas, the militant group that runs Gaza and that Israel has vowed to destroy.
“Every day the situation gets worse. Food gets less, water gets worse, only death, fear and destruction get greater,” said Samira, 40, a mother of four, who is displaced in Rafah, near the southern border with Egypt.
In a surprise cross-border attack on Oct. 7, Hamas militants rampaged through Israeli towns, killing 1,200 people and capturing 240 hostages. Israel’s counterattack has killed close to 19,000 people, according to Gaza health authorities, with thousands more feared buried under rubble.
In signs of the wider ramifications of the conflict, Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthis said they had attacked the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat with a swarm of drones, one of several drone incidents reported in the region on Saturday.
Two major freight firms said they would avoid the Suez Canal as the Houthis stepped up attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea.
The U.S. Central Command said the destroyer Carney had shot down 14 Houthi drones in the Red Sea. Britain also said one of its warships had shot down a suspected attack drone targeting merchant shipping.