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Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said Tuesday that a truce agreement with Israel was in sight, raising hopes that dozens of people taken hostage in the October 7 attacks could be released from war-torn Gaza.
A foreign ministry spokesman in Qatar, a key mediator, said negotiations had reached a "critical and final stage" and that "we are at the closest point" yet in reaching a deal.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has vowed to destroy Hamas, late Monday met families of some of the 240 hostages but was tightlipped about a potential breakthrough.
In Washington, US President Joe Biden indicated earlier that a deal was near, while his national security spokesman John Kirby said: "We believe we're closer than we've ever been, so we're hopeful."
Kirby, though, cautioned that "there's still work to be done" and told reporters that "nothing is done until it's all done".
Hopes of a breakthrough have been mounting since Qatar on Sunday said only "minor" practical issues remained for a deal.
Speculation grew further when the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is often involved in prisoner exchanges and hostage releases, said on Monday that its president had met Haniyeh in Qatar.
"We are close to reaching a deal on a truce," the Hamas leader said, according to a statement sent by his office to AFP.
Despite the efforts toward a truce, fighting raged on in Gaza's bloodiest ever war, sparked by the October 7 attack in which Israel says Hamas gunmen killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians.
In retaliation, Israel launched a relentless bombing campaign and ground offensive in the Gaza Strip. According to the Hamas government, the war has killed more than 13,300 people, thousands of them children.
The tentative agreement would include a five-day truce, comprised of a complete ceasefire on the ground and an end to Israeli air operations over Gaza, except in the north, where they would only halt for six hours daily.
Under the deal, which the sources said could yet change, between 50 and 100 Israeli civilian and foreign hostages would be released, but no military personnel.
In exchange, some 300 Palestinians would be freed from Israeli jails, among them women and minors.
- 'Waiting for answers' -
An agreement could bring some respite for Gazans who have endured more than six weeks under Israel bombardment and an expanding ground offensive.
Large parts of Gaza have been flattened by thousands of air strikes, and the territory is under siege, with minimal food, water and fuel allowed to enter.
According to the Hamas and Islamic Jihad sources, the proposed deal would also allow for up to 300 trucks of food and medical aid to enter Gaza.
Israel has been wary of allowing fuel into Gaza for fear it could be used by Hamas in rockets or for other military purposes.
Israel has vowed to press ahead with its offensive, pledging to crush Hamas and ensure the hostages are released.
"We will not stop fighting until we bring our hostages home," Netanyahu declared after meeting relatives of those abducted.
But there was frustration among some of the families.
"We wanted to hear about a deal and that the return of the abductees is a priority among the war objectives," said Udi Goren, whose cousin Tal Haimi is one of those being held.
"We were waiting for answers but they didn't give any," he told Israeli public television.
The Israeli military meanwhile said air strikes had hit "around 250" Hamas targets in the last day, destroying three underground shafts in the Jabalia area, which it said it had fully surrounded.
Two Israeli soldiers were killed "in operational activity" in northern Gaza, it added.
- Premature babies -
Medics and patients have been increasingly caught up in the fighting, as Israel expanded its operation across northern Gaza.
The Hamas-run health ministry said Israel had laid siege to and hit the Indonesian Hospital in Jabalia on Monday, killing dozens, but there was no independent confirmation of the toll.
The Hamas government said dozens of tanks and armoured vehicles were deployed around the outskirts of the hospital and were firing towards the facility.
"We fear the same thing will happen there as did in Al-Shifa," Qudra added, referring to Gaza's largest hospital, which has been raided and scoured by Israeli troops.
Twenty-eight premature babies from Al-Shifa were evacuated to Egypt on Monday.
The Indonesian Hospital is near Gaza's largest refugee camp Jabalia, which has been the scene of intense Israeli bombing in recent days.
The health ministry official said there still were about 400 patients inside the hospital, as well as 2,000 people seeking shelter.
Around 200 people were evacuated from the hospital on Monday and bussed to the relative safety of a hospital in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza.
At the packed Al-Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis, an AFP reporter saw bloodied children being carried in and lying dazed on gurneys.
"We miraculously got out," said one man who said he escaped the Indonesian Hospital.
"We still have brothers there. I just can't..." he said, his voice trailing off.
- 'Scenes of death' -
Israel says Hamas uses medical facilities to hide fighters and as bases for operations, making them legitimate military objectives, while insisting it does everything possible to limit harm to civilians.
But international criticism of Israel's conduct of the war has grown, with protests across the world, international agencies making accusations of war crimes, and some governments breaking diplomatic ties.
The World Health Organization said it was "appalled" by the strike on the Indonesian Hospital, calling it just one of 164 documented attacks on health facilities and workers since the war began.
"The world cannot stand silent while these hospitals, which should be safe havens, are transformed into scenes of death, devastation, and despair," it said.
The Indonesian Hospital was opened almost a decade ago, and was funded by donations from the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation.
Indonesia's Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi on Monday "strongly condemned the Israeli attack" on the hospital.
The ministry had not been able to contact three Indonesian volunteers believed to have been working at the facility, she added.