Israeli forces engaged in heavy fighting with Hamas in the northern Gaza Strip overnight as the U.S. said it was optimistic about a deal to free hostages held by the militant group.
The Israeli military and Shin Bet, the country’s domestic security service, said they killed three Hamas commanders, while fighter jets bombed more buildings and sites used by Hamas.
The main thrust of Israel’s ground offensive is eastwards into Gaza City, which the military describes as Hamas’s “center of gravity.” Israeli forces have taken control of many parts of the city’s Al Shifa hospital and over the weekend showed videos they say prove Hamas exploited the facility, building a command center and tunnels underneath it.
Hamas, backed by Iran and designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union, used Al Shifa “to carry out gruesome terrorist activity,” Israeli military spokesman Amnon Shefler said in a briefing on Sunday night. “They have it as a command center, as a control center, as a place to hide hostages, as a place to murder and kill.”
The movement of troops into the Shifa complex last week was controversial, with the U.S. urging Israel to exercise restraint and prioritize the safety of the patients still there as well as civilians taking shelter.
President Joe Biden said Monday that Israel and Hamas are closing in on a deal to free a group of hostages. “I believe so,” he said when asked if a deal was near. He added that he wasn’t prepared to offer details.
U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer said in an interview Sunday with NBC that the parties were “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.”
Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader in Gaza, is engaged in the talks and has agreed in principle for more than 50 women and children to be released, Axios reported. In return, Israel would pause its military attacks for a specified time each day and release some Palestinians in Israeli jails.
Qatar, which hosts some of Hamas’s political leaders, is helping broker the talks.