Saturday December 9th, 2023 12:10AM

Live updates | Hamas officials say hostage agreement could be reached soon

By The Associated Press

Senior Hamas officials said Tuesday that an agreement could be reached soon in which the militant group would release hostages and Israel would free Palestinian prisoners. Meanwhile, Israeli officials announced that meetings of key decision-making bodies would be held late Tuesday to discuss “the issue of the release of hostages.”

Israel, the United States and Qatar, which mediates with Hamas, have been negotiating for weeks over a hostage release that would be paired with a temporary cease-fire in Gaza and the entry of more humanitarian aid. Similar predictions of a hostage agreement in recent weeks have proven premature.

Israel's army is widening its operations across northern Gaza, where they battled Palestinian militants on Tuesday in the densely populated Jabaliya refugee camp, the territory's largest.

The military said forces are “preparing the battlefield” in the Jabaliya area, just north of Gaza City, and have killed dozens of militants in recent days. Troops discovered three tunnel shafts where fighters were hiding and destroyed rocket launchers, it said.

It wasn't possible to independently confirm details of the fighting. A strike on a nearby hospital killed 12 people on Monday as Israeli troops and tanks battled militants outside its gates.

Israel says Hamas uses civilians and hospitals as shields, while critics say Israel’s siege and relentless aerial bombardment amount to collective punishment of the territory’s 2.3 million Palestinians after Hamas’ Oct. 7 rampage into southern Israel.

More than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed, two-thirds of them women and minors, and more than 2,700 others are missing and believed buried under rubble, according to Gaza's Health Ministry. The ministry says it has been unable to update its count since Nov. 11 because of the health sector’s collapse.

Gaza health officials say the toll has risen sharply since, and hospitals continue to report deaths from daily strikes, often dozens at a time.

The Health Ministry in the West Bank last reported a toll of 13,300 but stopped providing its own count Tuesday without giving a reason. Because of that, and because officials there declined to explain in detail how they tracked deaths after Nov. 11, the AP decided to stop reporting its count.

Some 1,200 people have been killed in Israel, mostly during the Oct. 7 attack, and around 240 were taken captive by militants.


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Here’s what's happening in the latest Israel-Hamas war:


HAIFA, Israel — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sounded a hopeful note Tuesday amid reports that his government and Hamas were close on a deal to pause the war for an exchange of hostages being held in the Gaza Strip for Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

“I hope there will be good news soon,” Netanhayu told troops during a visit to a training base.

Senior Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya also said a humanitarian pause could be close, telling reporters in Beirut that the two sides “are in decisive moments” regarding a deal. He declined to go into details.

Israeli media reported that an agreement would include a five-day halt in Israel’s offensive in Gaza and the release of 50 hostages held by Hamas in exchange for some 150 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Israel’s Channel 12 TV said the first releases would take place Thursday or Friday and continue for several days.


STRASBOURG, France — A senior European Union official said the bloc will continue to provide financial aid to the Palestinians after an investigation found that no money has been diverted to Hamas.

“The review found no indications of EU money having directly or indirectly benefited the terrorist organization Hamas,” EU Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis told reporters.

“Payment to Palestinian beneficiaries and UNRWA will continue without payment delays. Finally, for those projects in Gaza that are not feasible due to the war, the money will be reallocated to Gaza either as humanitarian or development aid.”


WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Tuesday that a deal on releasing some hostages was “very close” to being finalized, and that he was hopeful they can get home to their families “very soon.”

“We’re now very close, very close. We could bring some of these hostages home very soon,” Biden said at an unrelated appearance at the White House. “Things are looking good at the moment.”

The president said he didn’t want to comment further because of the sensitive nature of the issue.

Biden's remarks came after Hamas officials had said an agreement on releases could be reached soon, and Israel officials announced meetings by key decision-makers late Tuesday to discuss the hostages issue.


ALGIERS, Algeria - The presidents of Turkey and Algeria had harsh words for Israel's actions in Gaza on Tuesday as they said they hoped for successful negotiations on the release of hostages and risoners.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose government maintains ties with Hamas officials, said Turkey’s foreign minister and intelligence chief were working with Qatari officials to negotiate releases.

“We are engaged in constant talks and our expectation is to receive a positive result," Erdogan said in a joint news conference with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune.

Tebboune said as regional powers, he and Erdogan would continue to push to stop “the human tragedy resulting from the crimes perpetrated by the Zionist entity in Gaza.”

Tebboune reiterated his calls to take Israel to the International Criminal Court and said “the denunciation of Israel’s crimes must be accompanied by an urgent initiative to halt the expansion of colonization in the West Bank.”

Erdogan said Israel’s actions had “turned into collective punishment and constitute war crimes.”


BAGHDAD — A strike hit a base housing U.S. troops in Iraq early Tuesday, causing “minor injuries to U.S. personnel and damage to infrastructure,” a U.S. military official in the country said.

The official said U.S. forces “responded in self-defense against those who carried out the strike” on al-Asad military base in western Iraq. A second defense official said “multiple” militants were killed in a strike carried out by a special operations AC-130 gunship that was already operating in the area.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Also early Tuesday, a drone strike on a highway west of Baghdad targeted two pickup trucks linked to the Kataeb Hezbollah militia, killing one militia member and injuring at least three others, two militia officials said.

The militia officials, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said the strike hit a convoy traveling from Anbar to Baghdad. Later on Tuesday, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a coalition of Iran-backed militias, issued a statement announcing the death of one of its members in Iraq in what it said was a U.S. airstrike.

It was not immediately clear if the strike that killed the Kataeb Hezbollah member was the same one launched in retaliation to the attack on the al-Assad base.

The two incidents come as Iranian-backed militants have launched dozens of attacks on bases and facilities housing U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria since Oct. 17. While most of the more than five dozen attacks have been ineffective, at least 60 U.S. personnel have reported minor injuries. The militant groups have said that the strikes are in retaliation for U.S. support of Israel in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

—By Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad, Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Tara Copp in Washington


JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office has announced meetings of three key decision-making bodies late Tuesday to discuss “the issue of the release of hostages.”

A statement released by Netanyahu’s office said the special war Cabinet will convene at 6 p.m. (1600 GMT), followed by meetings of the broader Security Cabinet and then the full Cabinet.

It gave no further details, but the various bodies are required to approve important government decisions.

The meetings come as Hamas officials say a deal could be reached soon on a cease-fire and swap of Palestinian prisoners for hostages held by the Islamic militant group in Gaza.

“On the return of the hostages, we are making progress," Netanyahu said in a meeting with Israeli soldiers. "I don’t think it’s worth saying too much, not even at this moment, but I hope there will be good news soon.”


MOSCOW — Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday hosted counterparts from the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to discuss the Israel-Hamas war.

Officials from eight Muslim countries and territories are visiting the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and other nations in an attempt to secure an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Speaking at the start of the talks in Moscow, Lavrov said Russia condemns any form of terrorism, but added that “terrorism must be fought using methods that don’t amount to collective punishment and don’t contradict, or to put it bluntly, rudely violate the norms of international humanitarian law.”

Lavrov also stressed the need to engage the countries of the region in the search for a long-term Israeli-Palestinian settlement, adding that they “understand better than anyone else how to reach a solution that will satisfy everyone.”


BEIRUT -- An Israeli strike in southern Lebanon killed two journalists for Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV who were reporting on violence along the tense Lebanon-Israel border, Lebanese Information Minister Ziad Makary and the station said Tuesday.

The Pan-Arab Al-Mayadeen TV identified the journalists as correspondent Farah Omar and cameraman Rabih Maamari. The station is politically allied with the militant Hezbollah group.

Hezbollah’s media office vowed that the killing of the journalists “will not pass without retaliation.” Hours later, Hezbollah said it fired two missiles that struck an Israeli intelligence unit inside a home near Kibbutz Manara in northern Israel, killing and wounding those inside. It said the attack was in retaliation for the killing of the journalists and civilians on the Lebanese side of the border.

The Israeli military said it was looking into the matter. In a statement earlier Tuesday, it said its aircraft “struck three armed terrorist cells in the area of the border with Lebanon” in addition to Hezbollah infrastructure.

Lebanon's state-run National News Agency reported that an Israeli strike on a home in the border village of Kfar Kila killed an 80-year-old woman, Laiqa Serhan, and wounded her granddaughter.

Last week, the Israeli government blocked Al-Mayadeen TV from broadcasting in Israel.

Israeli shelling of southern Lebanon on Oct. 14 killed Reuters videojournalist Issam Abduallah and wounded other journalists from Agence France-Presse and Qatar’s Al-Jazeera TV.


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The helicopter-borne Houthi attack on an Israel-linked ship in the Red Sea highlights the danger now lurking in one of the world’s key shipping routes as the Israel-Hamas war rages, as well as the rebels’ tactics mirroring those of its chief sponsor, Iran.

While Tehran has denied aiding the Yemen rebel group in launching their attack Sunday, the targeted ship before the assault passed by an American-sanctioned Iranian cargo vessel suspected as serving as a forward spying base in the Red Sea. The rebels, dressed commando-style in bulletproof vests carrying assault rifles, covered each other and moved in military formation before quickly seizing control of the bridge of the Galaxy Leader.

While their body-camera footage serves as a propaganda coup to bolster their own position in Yemen amid some protests against their rule, it also signals a new maritime front has opened in a region long focused on the Persian Gulf and its narrow mouth at the Strait of Hormuz. It also puts new pressure on commercial shippers traveling through those waters, threatens to increase insurance costs that will get passed onto consumers and likely further stretches the U.S. Navy as it tries to serve as the region’s security guarantor.


BEIRUT -- Israel, the United States and Qatar, which mediates with Hamas, have been negotiating for weeks over a hostage release that would be paired with a temporary cease-fire in Gaza and the entry of more humanitarian aid.

Hamas has released four hostages, Israel has rescued one, and the bodies of two were found near Shifa.

Izzat Rishq, a senior Hamas official, said Tuesday that an agreement could be reached “in the coming hours” in which Hamas would release captives and Israel would release Palestinian prisoners. Hamas’ leader in exile, Ismail Haniyeh, also said they were close to a deal, but similar predictions in recent weeks have proven premature.

Israel’s three-member war Cabinet met with representatives of the hostages’ families on Monday evening. A relative of a hostage said the officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told families the government considers the release of hostages and the defeat of Hamas to be “equally important.”

Udi Goren, whose cousin Tal Chaimi is in captivity in Gaza, said that was “incredibly disappointing” for the families, as Israel has said it could take months to dismantle the militant group.

“We will not stop fighting until we bring the hostages home, destroy Hamas and ensure that there is no more of a threat from Gaza,” Netanyahu said on social media after the meeting.

Hamas gunmen and their allies captured more 240 hostages during their deadly Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel in which they also killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians.


TEL AVIV, Israel — The brother of an award-winning Palestinian poet in Gaza says he has been arrested by Israeli troops and his whereabouts are unknown.

Mosab Abu Toha has been contributing pieces to Western media since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, painting a dire image of its toll on civilians through his personal experience. His brother, Hamza Abu Toha, posted on X, formerly Twitter, on Monday that Mosab was arrested while evacuating to southern Gaza, following Israeli military orders. Hamza said his brother’s wife and children were allowed to continue south, but “the military detained my brother.”

Mosab Abu Toha last posted on X on Nov. 15, writing “Alive. Thanks for your prayers.”

The literary and free expression organization PEN said it was concerned about the arrest and demanded to know Abu Toha’s whereabouts and the reason for his arrest. The New Yorker magazine, to which Abu Toha has contributed multiple articles, called for his safe return.

The Israeli military said it was looking into the reports.


JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Indonesia strongly condemns the Israeli attack on the Indonesian Hospital in Gaza which killed a number of civilians, its foreign minister said.

“The attack is a clear violation of international humanitarian law. All countries, especially those that have close relations with Israel, must use all their influence and capabilities to urge Israel to stop its atrocities,” Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi said in a statement Monday.

The ministry said it has lost contact with three Indonesian citizens who were volunteers at the Indonesian Hospital, which is funded by Indonesia, and is seeking information about them from the World Health Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

About 200 people were evacuated from the hospital after it was caught up in fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas militants on Monday.

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