Gaza ceasefire nears as Israel air strikes kill disabled man and pregnant wife

Israeli air strikes are estimated to have killed 227 people, including 64 children, in Gaza since May 10

A ceasefire in the battered Gaza Strip could be reached as early as Friday, media reports citing those involved in talks said, despite the unceasing air strikes pounding the besieged enclave.

Rocket fire into Israel died down overnight, a lull that stretched into Thursday morning. Israel launched new air strikes into Gaza shortly after midnight and then again after daybreak, but, Israeli media said, at a slower pace than in past days.

Israeli strikes have killed at least 227 people, including 64 children, since May 10, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Ten have been killed in Israel by rocket fire, including two children.

Disabled Palestinian Eyad Saleha, 33, was waiting for lunch on Wednesday when a missile fell on his family home in Gaza, killing him, his pregnant wife and their three-year-old daughter, according to his brother and authorities.

The family's living room was blasted to bits and the mangled parts of a child's red bicycle lay among the wreckage. Inside their toppled fridge, grey dust covered a bowl of fresh red tomatoes.

Israel's army said it seeks to avoid "collateral damage" from strikes that are aimed at military targets.

But it has not provided specific comment on Wednesday's strike in Deir El Balah, which tore through the seaside building's facade and destroyed all three rooms in the family flat.

As well as Eyad, it killed his wife Amani, 33, and their daughter Nagham.

Omar Saleha, 31, said his brother had been unable to walk for 14 years and was not a fighter.

"What did my brother do? He was just sitting in his wheelchair," he said.

"What did his daughter ever do? What did his wife do?" said the younger brother, who was with neighbours when the Israelis struck.

"They were just getting ready to have lunch."

He said Saleha was unemployed and shared the flat with his mother and three brothers.

Like many others in the impoverished coastal enclave, they relied on aid from the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

Deputy Health Minister Yousef Abu Al Rish said he was outraged.

"Killing innocents at home – even foetuses in their mothers' bellies – is a crime," he said.

"How many more dead must there be for the world to grow a conscience?"

It was not clear if the three-storey building was hit on purpose or by accident.

Israel carried out more than a dozen air strikes on Gaza after midnight, targeting what it said was a weapons storage unit in the Gaza city home of a Hamas official, and military infrastructure in the homes of other commanders from the group. Medics said four people were wounded in one attack on the town of Khan Younis in southern Gaza.

Rocket sirens blared just after midnight in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba and in areas bordering Gaza, but there were no reports of casualties or damage. The work day began on Thursday with no alerts after a lull in rocket fire.

Diplomatic push

A senior Hamas official predicted a ceasefire within days in the Israel-Gaza conflict, after US President Joe Biden urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek a de-escalation in the fighting.

An Egyptian security source said the sides had agreed in principle to a ceasefire after help from mediators, but details were still being negotiated in secret.

"I think that the ongoing efforts regarding the ceasefire will succeed," the Hamas political official, Moussa Abu Marzouk, told Lebanon's Al Mayadeen TV.

"I expect a ceasefire to be reached within a day or two, and the ceasefire will be on the basis of mutual agreement."

Egypt proposed several options to Mr Haniyeh to help stop the fighting, a senior Egyptian intelligence official told Dow Jones.

One option is for a ceasefire with no conditions, the other is for a temporary halt to the fighting while a long-term deal is negotiated.

Asked on Israel's Kan public radio if a ceasefire would begin on Friday, Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen said: "No. We are definitely seeing very significant international pressure ... we will finish the operation when we decide we have attained our goals."

Mr Netanyahu, who spoke to Mr Biden by telephone on Wednesday, said Israel wants to achieve "forceful deterrence" to dissuade Hamas from future confrontation.

But Dow Jones said that the Israeli military has privately conceded it is nearing the completion of its objectives.

Qatar-based Al Jazeera television reported that UN Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland was meeting Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh in Doha.

Secretary of State Antony J Blinken said that the US would remain engaged with Israel, the Palestinian Authority and regional stakeholders in the days ahead, and reinforced the message that the US expects to see de-escalation on the path to a ceasefire.

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said the country is in talks with international partners to reach a truce, condemning the continued escalation in Gaza and the ongoing provocations in East Jerusalem.

“We are working alongside our international partners including the US [foreign] minister and contacting all the influential countries to exert pressure to stop this escalation and restore calm,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan told Arabiya TV network late on Wednesday.

Since the early days of the fighting, Hamas has expressed a willingness to dial back hostilities, with the group’s Mr Haniyeh saying last Tuesday that, “if the occupation [Israel] wants to escalate, then the resistance is ready, and if it wants to stop, the resistance is also ready”.

Mr Biden is under pressure from Democratic allies, with House members led by representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan introducing a resolution on Wednesday to block a planned $735 million US arms sale to Israel.

“The United States should not be rubber-stamping weapons sales to the Israeli government as they deploy our resources to target international media outlets, schools, hospitals, humanitarian missions and civilian sites for bombing,” Ms Ocasio-Cortez said in a tweet.

Ms Tlaib, the first woman of Palestinian descent to be elected to Congress, spoke briefly to Mr Biden about the Gaza violence on Tuesday.

Separately, rockets fired from Lebanon struck Israel for the first time on Wednesday since the fighting began, with one intercepted and three others “most likely” having fallen in open territory, according to the military, which responded with artillery fire.

Updated: May 20, 2021 05:59 PM

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