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Gaza fighting continues despite efforts for truce

Some civilians fleeing the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis wear hazmat suits left over from the Covid pandemic to keep warm as winter storms lash the Palestinian territory
— Gaza Strip (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

Fighting raged Friday in Gaza forcing thousands of Palestinians to flee seeking shelter, after Qatar said Hamas had given "initial" support to a hostage-prisoner exchange that would pause its war with Israel.

The Hamas press office reported Israeli air and artillery bombardment around Khan Yunis -- southern Gaza's main city and the focus of recent fighting.

Winter storms and torrential rain also pounded the devastated coastal territory, with the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA saying on social media: "Gaza is being strangled and the world seems to have lost its humanity."

Israeli raids targeted central and southern Gaza, witnesses said, forcing thousands of Palestinians to flee, some wearing hazmat suits left over from the Covid pandemic to protect themselves against the harsh weather.

AFP video footage showed people running amid the sound of gunfire in Khan Yunis, as black smoke billowed from an explosion nearby.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) announced the deaths of three Palestinian Red Crescent workers -- two on Wednesday and one on Friday -- around Al-Amal hospital in Khan Yunis.

"Any attack on healthcare workers, ambulances, and medical facilities is unacceptable," the IFRC said in a statement.

The Palestinian Red Crescent earlier said Israeli snipers were firing at one of its buildings where thousands of displaced people were sheltering.

A picture taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip shows smoke rising over buildings in Khan Yunis during Israeli bombardment on February 2

Nearly four months of fighting have devastated Gaza while an Israeli siege has resulted in dire shortages of food, water, fuel and medicines.

Images released Friday by the UN's satellite centre UNITAR based on footage collected on January 6 and 7 show that "approximately 30 percent" of Gaza's structures have been affected by the war.

"The new findings provide an estimated figure of 93,800 housing units damaged in the Gaza Strip," UNITAR said.

Hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinian civilians are sheltering in bombed out buildings and makeshift camps.

- Diplomatic push for truce -

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to the Middle East to press a proposal to release Israeli hostages in return for a pause in the Gaza offensive, the US State Department said.

Blinken will visit Qatar and Egypt -- the mediators of the proposal -- as well as Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia starting Sunday, it said.

This comes after Qatar's foreign ministry spokesman Majed al-Ansari said there were hopes of "good news" about a fresh pause to the fighting "in the next couple of weeks".

He said a truce proposal agreed with Israeli negotiators was presented to Hamas and had received a "positive" initial response from the Palestinian militant group and was "approved by the Israeli side".

Al-Khair hospital in Khan Yunis damaged amid ongoing battles between Israel and the militant group Hamas.

The plan was thrashed out with Israeli negotiators by Egyptian, Qatari and US mediators in Paris earlier this week.

A source close to Hamas told AFP however: "There is no agreement on the framework of the agreement yet -- the factions have important observations -- and the Qatari statement is rushed and not true."

A Hamas source said the group had been presented with a three-stage plan which would start with an initial six-week halt to the fighting that would see more aid deliveries into Gaza.

The pause would also see the release of "women, children and sick men over 60" among the Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israel, the source said, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.

The leaders of Hamas and its Gaza ally Islamic Jihad, Qatar-based Ismail Haniyeh and Ziyad al-Nakhalah, discussed the latest development and said any future ceasefire must lead to "a full withdrawal" of Israeli troops from Gaza, Haniyeh's office said.

Israel tanks move along the border with Gaza where fighting with Hamas militants continues to rage

The war in Gaza was triggered by Hamas's October 7 attack on Israel, which resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Militants also seized about 250 hostages, and Israel says 132 remain in Gaza, including at least 27 believed to have been killed.

In response, Israel launched a withering offensive that has killed at least 27,131 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

- Rafah a 'pressure cooker' -

Palestinians receive food rations at a donation point at a camp for internally displaced people in Rafah

The humanitarian crisis and the mounting civilian death toll have triggered growing international calls for a ceasefire.

On Friday the UN's humanitarian agency OCHA said it was deeply concerned about the escalation of hostilities in Khan Yunis, which has pushed a flood of people into Rafah for shelter.

"Rafah is a pressure cooker of despair, and we fear for what comes next," OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke said.

The UN children's agency UNICEF meanwhile estimated that at least 17,000 children in Gaza have been left unaccompanied or separated from their parents due to the war.

"Each one has a heartbreaking story of loss and grief," said Jonathan Crickx, UNICEF spokesman in the Palestinian territories.

Tracing the children's identities was proving "extremely difficult", as sometimes they were brought to a hospital where they may be wounded or in shock, and "they simply can't even say their names", he added.

- Regional spillover -

Violence has also flared in the occupied West Bank, where more than 370 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops and settlers since October 7.

In a rare move against Israelis, the United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on four Jewish settlers over the violence.

Hamas's war with Israel has sparked a surge in attacks by Iran-backed groups in the region in support of the Palestinians.

On Friday, the Israeli army said its defence system "successfully intercepted a surface-to-surface missile that approached Israeli territory in the area of the Red Sea", as Yemen's Huthi rebels claimed they fired missiles towards Israel.

A drone attack Sunday by Iraq-based militants killed three US soldiers -- the first American military losses since the start of the Israel-Hamas war -- in Jordan.

American media on Friday reported retaliatory US strikes on eastern Syria, which a war monitor said killed six pro-Iran fighters.

Washington had earlier warned of "multiple actions" against Iran-backed groups in Iraq and Syria.