Israelis agree to four-hour pauses to let people flee Gaza - White House

Israel has agreed to pause military operations in northern Gaza for four hours a day from Thursday, the White House said, in the first sign of a respite in more than a month of fighting that has killed thousands and stoked fears of a regional conflict. 

The pauses, that would allow people to flee along two humanitarian corridors and could be used for the release of hostages, were significant first steps, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said. 

Minutes later, U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters he was pushing for even longer pauses in Gaza to get hostages held by Hamas Islamist militants out. 

Asked if he was frustrated with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden said, "It's taken a little longer than I hoped." 

Taher Al-Nono, a political adviser to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, said on Thursday that unspecified negotiations were continuing and no deal had been reached with Israel so far. 

The Israeli military said they would be no full ceasefire, just tactical, local pauses for humanitarian aid. 

There were no immediate reports of a lull in fighting raging among ruined buildings in the north of the Gaza Strip. 

Israel unleashed its assault on Gaza in response to a cross-border Hamas raid on southern Israel on Oct. 7 in which gunmen killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and took about 240 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. 

It was the single worst day of bloodshed in Israel's 75-year history and drew international condemnation of Hamas and sympathy and support for Israel. 

But Israel's retaliation in the Hamas-ruled enclave caused great concern as a humanitarian catastrophe unfolded. 

Palestinian officials said 10,812 Gaza residents had been killed as of Thursday, about 40% of them children, in air and artillery strikes while basic supplies are running out and areas laid waste by unrelenting Israeli bombardments. 

Earlier, a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the heads of the CIA and Israel's Mossad intelligence agency chiefs met with the Qatari prime minister in Doha on Thursday to discuss the parameters of a deal for hostage releases and a pause in Hamas-Israel fighting. 

Displaced pack Gaza hospitals 

In northern Gaza, Israeli forces fought Hamas militants and inched their way closer to two big hospitals as the plight of civilians in the besieged Palestinian territory worsened. 

Thousands more Palestinians were fleeing from the embattled north to the south along a perilous frontline path littered with bodies after Israel told them to evacuate, people on the route said. 

But many are staying in the north, packed into the Al Shifa Hospital and al-Quds Hospital as ground battles rage around them and more Israeli air strikes rain down from above. 

Israel says its Hamas foes have command centres embedded in the hospitals. 

In Paris, officials from about 80 countries and organisations were meeting to coordinate humanitarian aid to Gaza and find ways to help wounded civilians escape the siege, now in its second month. 

"Without a ceasefire, lifting of siege and indiscriminate bombarding and warfare, the haemorrhage of human lives will continue," Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said before the White House announcement. 

Israel and its main backer the United States say a full ceasefire would benefit Hamas. 

Residents in Gaza City, a Hamas stronghold, said Israeli tanks were stationed around the area. Both sides reported inflicting heavy casualties on one another in intense street battles. 

Israel, which has vowed to wipe out Hamas, says 33 of its soldiers have been killed in its ground operation as they advanced into the heart of Gaza City. 

Nowhere to run 

Thousands of Palestinians have sought refuge at Al Shifa hospital inside Gaza City despite Israel's orders to evacuate the area it has encircled. They are sheltering in tents in the hospital grounds and say they have nowhere else to go. 

The U.N. humanitarian office OCHA said Israel had again told residents of the north to move south, and that shelling around the main road continued, endangering evacuees. 

"We saw decomposed bodies, people from civilian cars, civilians like us, not military cars or resistance men," Khaled Abu Issa said after crossing into the south with his family at Wadi Gaza. 

Another resident, who asked not to be named, said he had crossed with his wife and six children. 

"You have to hold your ID card in your hand and raise it as you go past the Israeli tanks and then walk several more kilometres searching for a lift," he said. 

Southern areas have also come under regular attack. In Khan Younis, Gaza's main southern city, residents picked through the rubble and debris of a building destroyed by an Israeli air strike, hoping to find survivors, on Thursday morning, witnesses said. 

Tensions have also soared on other faultlines. Lebanese Islamist group Hezbollah said it fired missiles over the border into Israel, and Israel's military said it responded with artillery fire. 

Ten Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in a raid on Jenin city and refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian health ministry said. Israel's military said it was conducting counter-terrorism raids. 

An unidentified drone hit a civilian building in the southern Israeli port city of Eilat, the Israeli military said, causing only light damage.