Israel Steps Up Attacks in Gaza Amid Cease-Fire Talks

Intense bombardment of a Gaza Strip city filled with refugees flattened a large mosque and killed or wounded scores of people on Thursday as Israel repeated its intention to push into the area with ground forces if Hamas does not release hostages before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Nearly 100 people were killed across the enclave from Israeli strikes over the past day, the Gazan health authorities said Thursday, bringing the total death toll after almost 20 weeks of war to nearly 30,000.

Around half of the Gaza Strip’s population of 2.3 million people are crammed into the southern city of Rafah along the border with Egypt, where the strike on the mosque occurred Thursday. Wafa, the Palestinian news agency, reported that at least seven Palestinians had been killed overnight in Rafah and dozens more wounded.

Israel’s preparations for an invasion of that area come as diplomats raced to forestall it, with Ramadan set to begin around March 10.

President Biden’s Middle East coordinator, Brett McGurk met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday for “a good couple of hours,” focusing on whether negotiators could “cement a hostage deal” according to a White House spokesman.

Talks last week in Cairo for a hostage deal failed when Mr. Netanyahu withdrew his negotiators, accusing Hamas of refusing to budge on what he called “ludicrous” demands and pledging to press on with Israel’s offensive.

But on Wednesday night, Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war cabinet, said there had been momentum on a new draft of a deal that indicated a “possibility to advance.” But he also warned that if no deal were struck, the Israeli military would continue fighting during Ramadan.

One person briefed on the talks said there were indications that both Hamas and Israel were willing to negotiate over an interim deal that could exchange 35 Israeli hostages who are either medically frail or older for an undetermined number of Palestinian prisoners.

On Thursday, Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said that the government “will expand the authority given to our hostage negotiators.”

According to Israeli officials, about 130 hostages are still held in Gaza, though officials believe that at least 30 of them are dead.

Senior Israeli, Qatari, U.S. and Egyptian officials will meet in Paris on Friday to attempt to advance a deal for a cease-fire and the release of hostages held by Hamas, an Israeli official and a person briefed on the talks said on Thursday. Qatar and Egypt have been acting as intermediaries between Israel and Hamas, which do not negotiate directly.

The Mossad chief, David Barnea; the C.I.A. director, William Burns; the Qatari prime minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al-Thani; and Abbas Kamel, the head of Egyptian intelligence, are among the expected attendees at the Paris talks, the Israeli official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the diplomatic developments, as did the person briefed on the talks.

On Thursday, Hamas praised a shooting near a checkpoint in the Israeli-occupied West Bank that killed at least one person, whom local media identified as an Israeli man in his 20s, and injured several others Thursday morning. Violence in the West Bank has soared since the war in Gaza began, underlining the broader challenges of stability and governance across the occupied territories.

In Thursday’s shooting, three Palestinians used automatic weapons to fire from a car toward a traffic jam in front of the A Za’im checkpoint, which leads to Jerusalem, the Israeli police said. All three attackers were killed, Eli Levy, a police spokesman, said in a video statement.

The Israeli military said Thursday that it was fighting Hamas across the breadth of the Gaza Strip. Troops “continued to expand” their offensives in northern Gaza, the military said. At the same time, the Israeli navy targeted vessels that it said were being used by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another militant group. And in the south, Israeli troops engaged and killed 15 fighters in the city of Khan Younis, the military said.

In Rafah, the intense bombardment Thursday heightened fears among residents who said it was the heaviest since 10 days ago, when Israeli forces conducted a raid there to free two hostages and launched a wave of attacks that the health authorities said killed dozens of Palestinians.

“It was a very hard night,” said Akram al-Satri, who is sheltering in Rafah. “They destroyed Al-Farouk mosque, which is one of the largest mosques in the area,” he added in a voice message on Thursday. Video published on Thursday by the Reuters news agency shows a large pile of debris at the site of the mosque.

The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday about the strikes on Rafah. Mr. Netanyahu has described the city as a Hamas stronghold, and says the goal of Israel’s campaign is to eliminate the militant group.

Since the Rafah raid and Mr. Netanyahu’s announcement of a planned ground offensive in Rafah, some people there — many of whom had already been displaced several times — began packing up and moving north.

On Thursday morning, after a night of fear as drones buzzed and airstrikes boomed, more displaced families from Rafah began arriving at the Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir al Balah, a city in central Gaza, said Beirut Hana, a lawyer who is sheltering there. They set up tents in and around the hospital and on empty plots of land, she said.

“Since the Israeli army announced their plans for a ground invasion of Rafah, people became scared and started moving,” Ms. Hana said in a phone interview. “Every day since then, large crowds of people have been arriving in Deir al Balah and Nuseirat,” another city in central Gaza.

Ms. Hana said that although some people were returning to their homes in Deir al Balah, many others who were not from the city had come in search of safety. But heavy bombardment has also continued in central Gaza, residents said.

“So many people are fleeing Rafah and coming here thinking they would be safer, only to get killed here,” said Ms. Hana, referring to the central strip.

Aaron Boxerman, Adam Sella Nader Ibrahim and Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting.

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