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A communications blackout in Gaza is slowing aid as officials press for hostage deal

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip walk in a United Nations Development Programme-provided tent camp in Khan Younis,Nov.15, 2023.
Fatima Shbair
Palestinians displaced by the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip walk in a United Nations Development Programme-provided tent camp in Khan Younis,Nov.15, 2023.

Updated November 16, 2023 at 5:48 PM ET

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel's military signaled an intention to expand its military campaign southward in Gaza on Thursday, and another telecommunications blackout disrupted the flow of badly needed aid, all while negotiations continued over the release of dozens of hostages.

U.S. officials have been working for weeks on a deal, with Qatar acting as an intermediary. President Biden said late Wednesday he was "mildly hopeful" about a possible deal that could involve the release of 50 to 100 hostages, likely women, children or elderly people. The precise details of any such a deal, however, remain unclear.

"Five to six times a day, I'm working on how I can be helpful in getting the hostages released and have a period of time where there's a pause long enough to let that happen," he said.

A top administration official on Middle East issues, Brett McGurk, is in the region this week and will be "heavily engaged in the ongoing negotiations to get the hostages out," a White House spokesperson said Thursday.

Israeli officials have refused comment on any potential deal. Hamas officials have signaled an openness to a deal to release hostages. Last month, the group released four hostages — two Americans and later two older Israeli women.

About 240 hostages are thought to remain in captivity in Gaza since they were kidnapped from Israeli towns and kibbutzim across the border during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel that left 1,200 people dead. Israel's offensive into Gaza in response to the attack has killed at least 11,470 Palestinians, according to health officials in Gaza.

U.S. officials believe that several Americans are among the captives, including a 3-year-old toddler. Hamas says Israeli airstrikes have killed dozens of hostages.

On Thursday, the Israel Defense Forces announced that soldiers had recovered the body of an Israeli hostage from "a structure adjacent" to Al-Shifa Hospital, the sprawling medical complex Israeli forces entered early Wednesday.

The hostage, a 64-year-old woman named Yehudit Weiss, was kidnapped on Oct. 7 from Be'eri, a small kibbutz near the Gaza border, the Israeli military said. Her husband was killed in Be'eri that day, Israeli media reported.

Weiss had been diagnosed with breast cancer about three months before the Hamas attack, her family members told Israeli media earlier this month. Israel's military did not provide any details about when or how Weiss died.

Israeli soldiers remain inside Al-Shifa Hospital, the largest and most modern hospital in the Gaza Strip.

Many patients and staff are still inside the hospital, aid groups and health officials in Gaza said, but the hospital is now inaccessible to ambulances and patients.

For weeks, Israel has said Hamas used the hospital and a network of tunnels underneath it to store weapons and plan attacks. Hamas denies those allegations.

A Hamas spokesperson said that dozens of Palestinians had died in Al-Shifa over the past several days, and that dozens more had been killed as they tried to flee the hospital. Israel claimed no casualties "among the patients, doctors and civilians" at Al-Shifa.

A telecommunications blackout is complicating aid efforts

The renewed telecommunications blackout has kept Palestinians from being able to call for ambulances, reaching loved ones and has hampered aid efforts as the humanitarian situation remains desperate, aid groups told NPR.

"We regret to announce that all telecom services in Gaza Strip have gone out of service as all energy sources sustaining the network have been depleted, and fuel was not allowed in," Paltel, the Palestinian telecom company, said in a statement.

Doctors Without Borders said its communication capabilities were "very limited."

The blackout comes at a moment when hospitals across northern Gaza have shuttered because they lack fuel for electricity and enough medical supplies, and as they face Israeli evacuation orders.

"These situations impede humanitarian and medical personnel from working safely and effectively," the International Committee for the Red Cross said in a statement. "Even the potentially life-saving act of calling an ambulance becomes impossible. It hampers the ability of rescue teams and first responders to reach the wounded and injured."

Without communications, the U.N. also cannot bring assistance into Gaza or distribute critical aid within Gaza.

Israeli military urges evacuation of parts of southern Gaza

The blackout came one day after Israel's military dropped leaflets over a part of southern Gaza where many Palestinians have sought shelter.

The flyers ordered civilians in areas east of Khan Younis, which is in southern Gaza, to evacuate to "known shelters." This includes people in the towns of Al Qarara, Khuza'a, Bani Suheila and Abasan, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The order was an indication that Israel may be poised to expand its area of heavy operations beyond northern Gaza.

Hundreds of thousands of people from the north of Gaza have already evacuated to areas in the south, some injured or sick, walking for hours with the few possessions they could carry and sometimes amid active gunfire and bombings. With Israeli troops all but encircling Gaza City, tens of thousands have fled from the north in recent days.

The Israeli military dropped new leaflets into Gaza, urging civilians to evacuate further in other parts of the south.
Anas Baba / Anas Baba
Anas Baba
The Israeli military dropped new leaflets into Gaza, urging civilians to evacuate further in other parts of the south.

A shrinking area for displaced Palestinians to shelter likely threatens to worsen the health and living conditions of civilians there. Last week, the International Rescue Committee issued a warning about the high risks of the spread of deadly cholera and typhoid in Gaza because most of the population has no access to safe and clean water.

The U.N. and other aid groups have objected to Israeli proposals to create a so-called "safe zone" in Gaza, a temporary area where displaced civilians could safely gather and receive aid. In a statement released Thursday, the heads of 18 international agencies said they would not participate in the establishment of a safe zone in Gaza without the agreement of all warring parties and other conditions in place to ensure safety.

"No 'safe zone' is truly safe when it is declared unilaterally or enforced by the presence of armed forces," wrote the group, which included the U.N.'s humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, its human rights chief, Volker Türk, and its high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi.

More than 1.5 million people in Gaza are estimated to be internally displaced, according to the U.N. That includes about 813,000 displaced people who are staying in at least 154 U.N.-run shelters — a number far more than what the facilities are capable of holding.

"Overcrowding is leading to the spread of disease, including acute respiratory illness and diarrhea, raising environmental and health concerns. The overcrowding is impacting the Agency's ability to deliver effective and timely services," the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.

Jaclyn Diaz reported from Tel Aviv. Becky Sullivan reported from Washington, D.C. Anas Baba contributed reporting in Rafah and Aya Batrawy contributed reporting in Dubai contributed to this story

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Jaclyn Diaz is a reporter on Newshub.
Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.