Middle East crisis
Release of hostages requires ceasefire, Hamas official says
GAZA/MOSCOW, Oct 27 (Reuters) - A Hamas official tied the release of hostages held in Gaza to a ceasefire in Israel's punishing air war in the enclave, launched after a deadly rampage by Hamas militants into southern Israel nearly three weeks ago.
Israel says it is preparing a ground invasion, but has been urged by the U.S. and Arab countries to delay an operation that would multiply the number of civilian casualties in the densely populated coastal strip and might ignite a wider conflict.
Two U.S. fighter jets struck weapons and ammunition facilities in Syria on Friday in retaliation for attacks on U.S. forces by Iranian-backed militias since the Gaza conflict erupted.
An opinion poll published on Friday suggested almost half of Israelis now wanted to hold off on a ground invasion out of fears for at least 224 hostages reported to be held there.
The Russian newspaper Kommersant quoted a member of a Hamas delegation visiting Moscow as saying time was needed to locate all those who had been taken from Israel by various Palestinian factions in the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 that sparked the crisis.
“They seized dozens of people, most of them civilians, and we need time to find them in the Gaza Strip and then release them,” Abu Hamid said.
He said Hamas, which has freed four hostages so far, had made clear since the first days of the war that it intended to release “civilian prisoners”.
But he said a “calm environment” was needed to complete this task, repeating an assertion – which Reuters could not verify – that Israeli bombing had already killed 50 of the prisoners.
Palestinian militants clashed with Israeli troops in at least two areas inside the Gaza Strip, the latest of several small-scale incursions, Hamas-affiliated media reported, though the Israeli military did not immediately confirm the sortie.
Residents of central Gaza said they had heard what sounded like an exchange of fire as well as heavy shelling and air strikes along the border, with Israeli planes dropping flares and bombs.
Israel said its fighter jets had struck three senior Hamas operatives who played significant roles in the Oct. 7 attack, all commanders in the Daraj Tuffah Battalion. There was no official announcement by Hamas.
In the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza, an air strike killed the pregnant wife of a Palestinian lawyer, Jehad Al-Kafarnah.
“My life, my heart, I love you,” Kafarnah wrote, weeping, on the white sheeting wrapped around his wife’s body. He held the body of her 8-month-old stillborn child, also wrapped in white, in his arms.
GAZA CIVILIANS GROW MORE DESPERATE
As Gaza’s 2.3 million civilians grow more desperate under an Israeli siege that has cut power and water as well as supplies of food, fuel and medicine, the issue of how to help them comes before the 193-member U.N. General Assembly in New York on Friday.
Unlike in the U.N. Security Council, where resolutions on getting aid to Gaza failed this week, no country will be able to veto the resolution submitted by Arab states calling for a ceasefire, which will not be binding but carry political weight.
The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, says more than 600,000 Gazans have been made homeless by Israeli bombardment, at least three times more than its shelters can hold.
Ten more trucks food and medical supplies arrived in the enclave, along with 10 foreign doctors, on Friday, the first to enter since Israel tightened its blockade on Gaza nearly three weeks ago, a Palestinian official at Gaza’s Rafah border crossing with Egypt said.
A U.N. official said earlier that around 74 trucks had crossed since the start of the conflict, making some 84 altogether. The U.N. says Gaza needs around 100 trucks every day to meet essential needs and the official said negotiations were taking place with Israel, which wants to prevent resources reaching Hamas, to find a faster mechanism.
U.S. STRIKES SYRIAN BASES USED BY IRANIAN PROXIES
Calls for restraint have been driven not only by concern for Gaza’s civilians and Israeli hostages, but also by fears that the crisis could ignite conflict across the Middle East.
U.S. President Joe Biden ordered overnight strikes on two Syrian facilities used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and militias that it backs, the Pentagon said. He earlier issued a rare direct warning to Iran on Thursday against targeting U.S. troops in the Middle East.
U.S. and coalition troops have been attacked at least 19 times in Iraq and in Syria by Iranian-backed forces in the past week.
The United States has sent warships and fighter aircraft to the region over the last three weeks and on Thursday the Pentagon said about 900 more U.S. troops were en route or in the Middle East to bolster air defences for U.S. personnel.
Israel says Hamas killed some 1,400 people including children in its Oct. 7 rampage.
The Hamas-controlled Gaza health ministry said on Thursday that 7,028 Palestinians had been killed in the retaliatory air strikes, including 2,913 children. Reuters could not independently verify the tolls.
A poll published in the Israeli daily Maariv newspaper found that 49% said “it would be better to wait” before beginning a large-scale ground offensive, while 29% disagreed. A poll a week earlier had found 65% support for a ground invasion.
“It is almost certain that the developments on the matter of the hostages, which is now topping the agenda, have had a great impact on this shift,” Maariv said.
By Nidal al-Mughrabi
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Ahmed Mohamed Hassan, Tala Ramadan, Emily Rose, Adam Makary, Jeff Mason, Phil Stewart, Michelle Nichols, Gabriela Baczynska and Andrew Gray; Writing by Grant McCool, Michael Perry and Kevin Liffey; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Simon Cameron-Moore and Raju Gopalakrishnan and Philippa Fletcher)