Palestinian children walk amid the destruction in a heavly damaged residential district of the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Yunis on July 5, 2024, amid continuing battles between Hamas and Israel in the besieged territory. Image Credit: AFP

Jerusalem: Israel’s spy chief was expected in Qatar on Friday for the latest effort to free hostages held by Hamas militants in Gaza, almost nine months into the Israel-Hamas war.

A source with knowledge of the talks said the Israeli delegation led by David Barnea, head of the Mossad intelligence service, was heading to the Gulf emirate for the discussions “aiming to bring the parties closer to a deal in Gaza”.

The Gaza war - which has raised fears of a broader conflagration involving Lebanon - began with Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of 1,195 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

The militants also seized hostages, 116 of whom remain in Gaza including 42 the military says are dead.

In response, Israel has carried out a military offensive that has killed at least 38,011 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to figures from the health ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory.

The source, speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the matter, said Barnea would meet Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, a mediator.

The United States, which along with Egypt has also tried for months to help broker a deal, said it welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to send a delegation.

‘Wearing down’ Hamas

US President Joe Biden announced a pathway to a truce deal in May, saying it had been proposed by Israel.

The UN Security Council in June adopted a US-drafted resolution welcoming the plan laid out by Biden, which included an initial six-week truce, Israeli withdrawal from Gaza population centres and the freeing of hostages by Hamas.

Talks subsequently stalled but a senior US official on Thursday said the Islamist movement’s latest response “moves the process forward and may provide the basis for closing the deal,” though “significant work” remained.

The United States believed Israel and Hamas had a “pretty significant opening” to reach an agreement, the official said.

There has been no truce in the war since a one-week pause in November saw 80 Israeli hostages freed in return for 240 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

The war has uprooted 90 per cent of Gaza’s population, destroyed much of the coastal territory’s housing and other infrastructure, and left almost 500,000 people experiencing “catastrophic” hunger, according to the United Nations and other world bodies.

On Wednesday Hamas said its Qatar-based political chief Ismail Haniyeh had “made contact with the mediator brothers in Qatar and Egypt about the ideas that the movement is discussing with them with the aim of reaching an agreement”.

The same day, Netanyahu’s office said “Israel is evaluating the (Hamas) remarks” and would reply to the mediators.

The main stumbling block has been Hamas’s demand for a permanent end to the fighting, which Netanyahu and his far-right coalition partners strongly reject.

Netanyahu is also under pressure from anti-government protesters who regularly take to the streets, including on Thursday night in Jerusalem, demanding a deal to free the hostages.

Netanyahu insists the war will not end until Israel destroys Hamas and the hostages are freed.

The difficulty of destroying the militants has been illustrated by the resumption of fighting in areas that Israel’s military previously declared cleared.

Army chief Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi on Tuesday said the war on Hamas is “a long campaign, with determination and perseverance we are accomplishing our missions and wearing down the other side.”

Artillery fire, bombardment

US officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken have voiced hope that a ceasefire in Gaza could lead to a reduction in tension over Lebanon as well.

Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, in support of Hamas, has engaged in near-daily fire with Israeli forces over the Lebanese border since the Gaza war began.

Exchanges of fire have intensified over the past month after Israel killed senior militant commanders.

On Thursday, in one of its largest strikes yet, Hezbollah said it fired more than 200 rockets and “explosive drones” at army positions in northern Israel and the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights in retaliation for an Israeli strike that killed one of the group’s commanders.

A military source said later that a soldier was killed by a rocket fired into northern Israel, and on Friday Israel’s military said fighter jets had struck Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon overnight.

During the Gaza war, deadly violence has also soared in the Israeli-occupied West Bank to levels unseen in about two decades.

On Friday the Palestinian Authority health ministry said an Israeli military raid on Jenin in the West Bank left five people dead, bringing to 12 the number killed during Israeli operations in the West Bank this week.

Almost two weeks ago Netanyahu said the “intense phase” of Gaza fighting was about to end, after troops went into Rafah, near the Egyptian border, which Israeli officials described as Hamas’s last stronghold.

But on Monday Israel’s army issued a new evacuation order for parts of Rafah and the southern city of Khan Yunis.

The United Nations called it “the largest such order since October” and said it had affected 250,000 people.

Witnesses on Friday reported Israeli artillery fire and bombardment in the Rafah and Khan Yunis areas.