Israeli right-wing activists scuffle with a journalist during a march commemorating Jerusalem Day in the old city of Jerusalem on June 5, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

BUREIJ, Palestinian Territories: Israel’s military pounded central Gaza with heavy air strikes on Wednesday as US, Qatari and Egyptian mediators planned to resume talks on a truce and hostage release deal.

Tensions were high in annexed east Jerusalem where thousands of police were deployed to guard Israel’s annual “flag March” that has sparked clashes between Jews and Arabs in previous years.

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The bloodiest ever Gaza war, sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel, raged on unabated with jets bombing targets overnight and Palestinian officials reporting yet more deaths.

Urban combat and shelling rocked Gaza’s southern city of Rafah near the Egyptian border, the last city hit by the Israeli ground invasion launched in northern Gaza in late October.

But fighting has also flared again in central areas, where the army said “troops have started targeted operational activity in the areas of Bureij and eastern Deir al-Balah, both above and below ground”.

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“The activity started with a series of air strikes on terror targets, including military compounds, weapons storage facilities and underground infrastructure,” it said.

“During the strikes, several Hamas terrorists were eliminated.”

Bombardment of central Gaza killed 11 people near the Al Maghazi camp and two near Deir Al Balah, said witnesses and Palestinian civil defence and hospital officials.

Families have rushed the dead and wounded to hospitals in the area, where AFP reporters said civilians were once more packing their belongings on pickup trucks and wheelchairs to flee.

Almost eight months into the war, global outrage has spiralled over the soaring death toll and the destruction in Gaza, where UN data suggests more than half of all buildings are destroyed or damaged.

‘Full-court press’

US President Joe Biden last Friday outlined what he called a three-phase Israeli plan that would halt the fighting for six weeks while hostages are exchanged for Palestinian prisoners and aid is stepped up.

G7 powers and Arab states have backed the proposal, although sticking points remain - Hamas insists on a permanent truce and full Israeli withdrawal, demands Israel has flatly rejected.

Biden has urged Hamas to accept the deal and deployed CIA chief Bill Burns to Qatar for a renewed push after months of back-and-forth negotiations.

A source with knowledge of the talks said Burns would “continue working with mediators on reaching an agreement between Hamas and Israel on a ceasefire in Gaza and the release of hostages”.

Brett McGurk, Biden’s top Middle East adviser, was also headed to Qatar, according to news site Axios which quoted sources as talking of a “full-court press... to get a breakthrough”.

Egypt’s state-linked Al Qahera News said an “Egyptian security delegation will meet with its Qatari and US counterparts in Doha on Wednesday to discuss the mechanism of restoring the truce talks”.

Qatar said Tuesday it had yet to see statements from either side “that give us a lot of confidence”, but that Doha was “working with both sides on proposals on the table”.

Biden earlier told Qatar’s emir that “Hamas is now the only obstacle to a complete ceasefire”, and “confirmed Israel’s readiness to move forward” with the terms he set out last week.

A senior Hamas official in Beirut on Tuesday accused Israel of seeking “endless” truce negotiations, and repeated the group’s position rejecting any deal that excludes a permanent ceasefire.

Flashpoint Jerusalem march

Israeli police deployed 3,000 officers in Jerusalem ahead of the annual march by right-wingers commemorating Israel’s capture of the Old City in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The annual march draws Israeli religious ultranationalists and Zionist youth groups and leads through the city’s Muslim Quarter to the Al Buraq Wall or Western Wall.

It has been a lightning rod for Israeli-Palestinian tensions in recent years.

On the day the march was held in 2021, Hamas launched a barrage of rockets towards Jerusalem, setting off a 12-day conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group.

The latest Gaza war was sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Militants also took 251 hostages, 120 of whom remain in Gaza, including 41 the army says are dead.

Israel’s bombardment and ground offensive have killed at least 36,550 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

Israel has faced growing diplomatic isolation, cases against it before two international courts, and several European governments recognising a Palestinian state.

Tensions have also risen between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even as the United States remains Israel’s top ally, political backer and weapons supplier.

Biden took a swipe in an interview with Time magazine at Netanyahu, who is leading a shaky right-wing coalition government and has been fighting corruption claims in court.

Asked if he believed the Israeli premier was dragging out the war for political self-preservation, Biden said: “There is every reason for people to draw that conclusion.”