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Israel floods Hamas attack tunnels, as mediators press for truce

Families of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip gather with supporters for a demonstration demanding an immediate deal, in Tel Aviv on January 29, 2024 (AHMAD GHARABLI)
Families of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip gather with supporters for a demonstration demanding an immediate deal, in Tel Aviv on January 29, 2024 (AHMAD GHARABLI)

Israel's army said Tuesday it was flooding Hamas's attack tunnels amid intense fighting in Gaza, even as international mediators pushed for a new halt in the nearly four-month war.

The epicentre of the fighting has been Khan Yunis, southern Gaza's main city where vast areas have been reduced to a muddy wasteland of bombed-out buildings.

The Israeli military said it had adopted the tactic of channelling water into Hamas's vast underground network of tunnels that it has dubbed "the Gaza metro".

"It is part of a range of tools deployed by the IDF (Israeli army) to neutralise the threat of Hamas's subterranean network of tunnels," it said, confirming media reports.

At the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October, there were 1,300 tunnels over 500 kilometres (310 miles) in Gaza, according to a study from US military academy West Point.

The army vowed to destroy them in the wake of Hamas's October 7 attacks on Israel that resulted in the deaths of around 1,140 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

Some 250 hostages were also dragged to Gaza during the October 7 attack, of which around 132 are still held captive, including bodies of at least 28 people believed to have been killed.

Since the Hamas attack, Israel has launched a withering air, land and sea offensive in Gaza that has killed at least 26,751 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the territory.

The military says many of the hostages taken by Hamas have been or continue to be held in the vast network of tunnels.

In December, some Israeli media said the army was leaning towards flooding the tunnels with seawater pumped from the Mediterranean, but experts warned it was dangerous and poses huge risks to civilians.

On Tuesday, the military said it had taken care not to "damage the area's groundwater".

- Truce talks -

In Khan Yunis, the Israeli army said its troops fighting in city blocks and tunnels had "eliminated terrorists during combat and located large quantities of weapons".

Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group fighting alongside Hamas, said it was battling Israeli forces near Khan Yunis and in other areas including Gaza City.

In the latest efforts to broker a new truce, a meeting in Paris on Sunday between top US, Israeli, Egyptian and Qatari officials resulted in a proposed framework.

Hamas said on Tuesday it had received the proposal, saying on its Telegram account that it was "in the process of examining it and delivering its response".

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, whose government helped broker a previous truce in November, voiced hope an initial deal might lead to a permanent ceasefire.

Sheikh Mohammed said the current plan included a phased truce that would see women and children hostages released first, with more aid also entering Gaza.

The United States expressed hope for a deal, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying "very important, productive work has been done".

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose office earlier also called the talks "constructive", ruled out releasing "thousands" of Palestinian prisoners as part of any deal to halt fighting in Gaza.

"I would like to make it clear... We will not withdraw the IDF from the Gaza Strip and we will not release thousands of terrorists. None of this will happen," he said Tuesday.

- Undercover hospital raid -

Violence has surged in the West Bank since the start of the war.

On Wednesday, Israeli undercover troops raided a hospital in Jenin, in the north of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory, killing three men the army said were members of a "terrorist cell".

Some of the Israeli agents were dressed as medical staff and carried a wheelchair and baby carrier as props, according to officials and hospital CCTV footage released by the Ramallah-based Palestinian health ministry.

Hamas said one of the three killed, Muhammad Jalamnah, was a commander in its armed wing.

The Israeli army charged that Jalamnah, allegedly "inspired" by the October 7 attack, had "planned to carry out a terror attack in the immediate future and used the hospital as a hiding place".

The Palestinian health ministry said hospitals enjoy special protection under international law and urged the United Nations to help end Israel's "daily string of crimes... against our people and health centres".

In southern Gaza, Palestinians buried dozens of bodies in a mass grave after officials said Israel returned remains it had exhumed from the territory.

The Israeli military did not respond to a request to comment, although it has previously made remarks about exhuming bodies from Gaza graves in search of Israeli hostages.

- UNRWA 'distraction' -

Fears have grown that the Middle East could face a wider conflict, after months of violence involving Iran-backed allies of Hamas in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, who have also targeted US forces.

The war has left much of Gaza in ruins and sparked a spiralling humanitarian crisis for its 2.4 million people, many of whom face the threats of hunger and disease.

Israel has alleged that about a dozen staff of the main UN aid agency for Palestinians took part in the October 7 attack, leading key donor countries including the United States and Germany to suspend funding.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has pleaded for continued support to meet the "dire needs", will have talks with donors in New York on Tuesday, his office said, as investigations into Israel's claims continue.

The World Health Organization called the row over UNRWA "a distraction from what's really going on every day, every hour, every minute in Gaza".

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