A delegation of high-level Hamas leaders is due to visit Egypt for talks aimed at bringing the war in Gaza to an end, as the Israeli military pushes deeper into the centre and south of the strip, displacing tens of thousands of people.
The UN’s humanitarian office said on Friday that over the past few days an estimated 100,000 people had arrived in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost town on the border with Egypt, after an intense new ground and aerial offensive around the central town of Deir al-Balah and the southern town of Khan Younis.
The areas had previously been designated by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as “safe zones” where civilians could shelter. Many of those who arrived in Rafah had already been displaced from their homes at least once.
Twelve weeks of hostilities in the small coastal territory, sparked by Hamas’s unprecedented 7 October attack on Israel in which 1,140 people were killed and up to another 250 taken hostage, have decimated large swathes of the coastal territory that is just 25 miles long (40km) and 4-7 miles wide. About 21,000 people have been killed and almost all of Gaza’s 2.3 million population have been displaced from their homes.
Israeli shelling of the area around al-Amal hospital in Khan Younis had killed 41 people over the past two days, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society said.
Aid agencies have said the humanitarian assistance that is reaching the strip is difficult to distribute because of the fighting, and is a fraction of what is needed for the population to survive the winter.
The UNWRA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, said on Friday that an aid convoy had come under fire from the Israeli military the day before, without causing casualties. The IDF said it was looking into the incident.
The UNRWA director in Gaza, Tom White, wrote on X: “Israeli soldiers fired at an aid convoy as it returned from northern Gaza along a route designated by the Israeli army – our international convoy leader and his team were not injured but one vehicle sustained damage.”
Ceasefire talks mediated by Qatar that led to a seven-day pause in hostilities at the end of November and the exchange of some hostages and prisoners, have not made progress since. The fighting in Gaza has intensified, with fierce house-to-house battles across Gaza City and incessant airstrikes and the advance of Israeli tanks south of the Gaza River.
The escalating war has raised tensions across the region, with militias around the Middle East allied with Iran launching attacks on Israel and US military installations.
The talks in Cairo on Friday were being held to discuss a new proposal for ending the war. The three-stage plan put forward by Egypt would entail an initial cessation of hostilities for at least a week and the release of all remaining Israeli civilian hostages held in Gaza; then a week in which female Israeli soldiers would be released in return for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails; and finally a month-long negotiation period for the release of male soldiers in exchange for Israeli withdrawal.
The proposal provides for a Palestinian government of technocrats, after talks involving “all Palestinian factions”, which would be responsible for governing and rebuilding in post-war Gaza.
Hamas has previously rejected the Egyptian plan. But an official with the group, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Agence France-Presse on Friday that the delegation would “give the response of the Palestinian factions, including several observations” regarding the proposal, which had recently been put to officials from Hamas and the smaller, allied armed group Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Hamas would seek “guarantees for a complete Israeli military withdrawal” from Gaza, the official said.
Israel said on Thursday it had given preliminary approval for a maritime aid corridor between Gaza and the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, but officials did not comment on the latest Palestinian engagement with the Egyptian peace plan.
Despite international calls for a ceasefire, including growing pressure from Israel’s closest ally, the US, to scale down the fighting, Israeli officials have vowed the war will continue until it achieves “complete victory” over Hamas, saying it could last several more months.
Diaa Rashwan, who heads Egypt’s state information services, said the plan was “intended to bring together the views of all parties concerned, with the aim of ending the shedding of Palestinian blood”.