CAIRO/GAZA/JERUSALEM, Dec 21 (Reuters) – Fighting in the Gaza Strip escalated on Thursday with some of the most intense Israeli bombardment of the war and Hamas showed its ability to rocket Tel Aviv, even as the enemies held their most serious talks for weeks on a new truce.
Israeli bombing was at its most intense over the northern part of the Gaza Strip where orange flashes of blasts and black smoke could be seen as morning broke from across the fence in Israel. Planes roared overhead and the booms of air strikes thundered every few seconds, punctuated by rattling gunshots.
In Israel’s business city Tel Aviv, sirens wailed and rockets exploded overhead, intercepted by Israeli defences. Israel’s Magen David Alom ambulance service said there were several impact spots but no initial word on casualties.
The armed wing of Hamas said it had fired the salvo in reaction to Israeli killing of civilians. But with the group’s leader in Cairo for truce talks, the attack seemed clearly timed to send a political message that 10 weeks of war that has laid waste to much of Gaza had failed to destroy the militants’ strike capability.
Residents in Jabalia in the north of the Strip close to the Israeli border said the area was fully cut off with Israeli snipers now firing on anyone trying to escape.
“It was one of the worst nights in terms of the occupation bombs. Also we could hear heavy fighting despite that,” said one Jabalia resident who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.
With Gaza’s communications lines shut down for a second day, the resident spoke to Reuters by phone using an electronic SIM card to access the Israeli mobile network across the fence. Gazans say such cuts to communication links have usually heralded Israeli assaults.
In a social media post, the Palestinian Red Crescent said ambulances were now unable to reach large numbers of victims inside Jabalia.
“We have received several appeals regarding continuous shelling on Al-Banna Street, Nazzala in Jabalia, northern Gaza, with dozens of martyrs and wounded people besieged there. Unfortunately, neither the emergency teams nor the relief teams have been able to reach them,” it said.
The World Health Organization said on Thursday the last hospital in the northern half of the Gaza Strip had largely ceased functioning over the past two days, leaving no place left to take the wounded.
TALKS SERIOUS, SIDES PUBLICLY FAR APART The intensification of fighting comes even as diplomatic efforts have been ramped up in the final weeks of the year to stave off humanitarian disasters.
The sides are considering a new truce to release some of the more than 100 hostages still held by militants who stormed Israeli towns on a killing spree on Oct. 7. At the same time, the UN Security Council is working on a new plan to ramp up help.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was in Egypt for a second day for talks, a rare personal intervention which in the past has marked important stages in diplomacy. Islamic Jihad, another militant group, said its leader was also going there.
The talks appear to be the most serious since a week-long ceasefire collapsed at the start of the month, but the public views of the opposing sides are far apart. Israel says it will discuss only on a temporary pause in fighting to free hostages; Hamas says it is interested only in negotiations that will lead to a permanent end to fighting.
“These are very serious discussions and negotiations, and we hope that they lead somewhere,” White House spokesperson John Kirby told reporters aboard Air Force One on Wednesday. President Joe Biden said: “We’re pushing.”
Hamas said in a statement that Palestinian factions had taken a united stance that there should be “no talk about prisoners or exchange deals, except after a full cessation of aggression”.
Earlier, Taher Al-Nono, Haniyeh’s media assistant, told Reuters: “We cannot talk about negotiations while Israel continues its aggression.”
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement: “Whoever thinks we will stop is removed from reality… All Hamas murderers, from the first to the last, are dead men walking.”
Washington, Israel’s closest friend, has told it in recent days to scale down its ground offensive, after Biden said “indiscriminate bombing” of Gaza was eroding global sympathy for Israel following the Hamas rampage.
STRIKE KILLS BORDER CROSSING COMMANDER Hamas officials said an Israeli air strike at the Rafah crossing to Egypt on Thursday morning killed four people including the Gaza head of another border crossing, Kerem Shalom. Israel’s military appeared to deny participation, saying it was not familiar with the incident.
Israel allowed Kerem Shalom to open this week, raising aid volumes, though U.N. agencies say it remains a trickle compared to the vast needs.
Israel began its campaign in the Gaza Strip with the aim of annihilating Hamas whose fighters raided Israel on Oct. 7. They took some 240 prisoners and killed 1,200 people, according to Israel, which says it cannot be safe until the group sworn to its destruction is eliminated.
Since then, nearly 20,000 Gazans have been confirmed killed, according to the Palestinian health ministry, with several thousand more bodies thought trapped under rubble. Nearly all of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been moved from their homes.
The U.N. Security Council was set to vote on Thursday on a resolution to boost aid after a delay at the request of the United States. The draft would give the U.N. a bigger role overseeing aid shipments, seen as diluting Israel’s control.
Reporting by Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Cairo, Bassam Masoud in Gaza, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Steve Holland aboard Air Force One; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Nick Macfie