Hamas predicts Mideast ceasefire is ‘imminent’ amid growing global pressure

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Jerusalem CNN  — 

A ceasefire in the bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be “imminent, possibly within 24 hours,” Hamas officials told CNN Wednesday, as world leaders dialed up pressure on both sides to end the fighting. Israel, however, has not commented on the possibility of a ceasefire deal.

Concerns have been growing over the worsening humanitarian situation, as the conflict raged for a 10th day Wednesday, pushing the Palestinian death toll to more than 220 people – including more than 60 children – and 12 people in Israel, including two children.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said Tuesday that 11 children in Gaza between the ages of 5 and 15 had been participating in its trauma treatment program before Israeli airstrikes killed them in their homes.

From left: Rula Mohammad al-Kawlak, 5, Tala Ayman Abu al-Auf, 13, Yara Mohammad al-Kawlak, 9, who were killed by Israeli airstrikes on May 16, in Gaza City, along with several other children who received trauma care from NRC.

NRC Secretary General Jan Egeland expressed outrage at what he called a “maddening, crazy exchange of rockets and missiles,” and said both Israeli politicians and generals, as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants in Gaza, should be held accountable.

“What they’re doing is killing children,” he told CNN’s Zain Asher.

Karl Schembri, NRC’s regional media adviser, told CNN Wednesday that the organization has dealt with children “who had absolutely terrifying, violent nightmares, that make them unable to function.”

“The violence, there’s no escape from it. This is not like going to some frontline, which you can avoid. This is the frontline coming to your bedroom,” Schembri said.

Calls for a truce

A Hamas leader on Wednesday described a “positive atmosphere” around talks to reach a ceasefire agreement with Israel, “thanks to the support of our Egyptian and Qatari brothers,” who proposed different solutions.

But Israel has not publicly signaled much eagerness to pause the conflict. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier Wednesday that he was “determined to continue this operation until its objective is achieved: to restore quiet and security to you, citizens of Israel.” The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) earlier said strikes would likely continue for days to come.

“I especially appreciate the support of our friend US President Joe Biden, for the State of Israel’s right to self-defense,” Netanyahu said.

US President Joe Biden had told Netanyahu “that he expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire,” according to the White House.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, left, and French President Emanuel Macron attend a video conference with Jordan's King Abdullah II ibn Al Hussein, on screen, to work on a ceasefire proposal at the Elysee Palace in Paris, on May 18.

France circulated a motion for a resolution for the UN Security Council to approve, providing momentum to spur an end to the turmoil. The Council, however, has been unable to approve a legally non-binding statement on the issue, blocked by the United States, which told the Council any UN action is not timely and won’t help de-escalate fighting.

“We are calling for a ceasefire, which is what we sent to the UN Security Council. There are very active discussions with the Americans on this subject in particular,” French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said at a news conference in Paris.

Israel has conducted more than 1,800 air strikes on Gaza since violence erupted over a week ago, according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Information. The ministry estimates that the Israeli air campaign has inflicted more than $323 million dollars of damage to the Palestinian enclave.

On Wednesday, dozens of Israeli warplanes launched a series of airstrikes on several Hamas targets, including “a weapons depot” located in offices belonging to Hamas’ internal security headquarters in Khan Yunis, and “a command and control center” in Rafah, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) said.

The 25-minute-long attack destroyed “about 40 underground targets,” the IAF said in a tweet, adding that about 3,750 rockets had been fired from Gaza as of Wednesday morning, of which 550 had failed and fallen within Gaza. It’s unclear how many of those rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system. The IDF has said previously that the system intercepts more than 90% of the rockets targeted.

An Israeli bomb squad unit inspect the site where a rocket fired from Gaza hit a sidewalk in Ashdod, Israel, on Wednesday, May 19.

The IDF has also twice tried to target the leader of Hamas’ military wing, Mohammed Deif, over the past 10 days, a military source in Israel confirmed to CNN on Wednesday. On each occasion, he escaped, the source said. No details about the dates or location of the attempts to kill Deif were provided.

Deif leads the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades and has been an influential planner of attacks for more than 20 years. He has long been an IDF target, suffering multiple injuries during previous attempts on his life, including the loss of both legs in 2006, according to Israeli media reports.

The official also gave the most detailed Israeli explanation yet of why it destroyed a building housing international media outlets Al Jazeera and the Associated Press, among others, over the weekend.

Journalists work near the destroyed Al-Jala'a building, which housed international press offices, following an Israeli airstrike in Gaza on Saturday, May 15.

The official said the Al-Jala’a building contained the electronic department of the military wing of Hamas, which was researching and developing high-end capabilities for attacks on Israel. The Israeli military has not provided evidence of Hamas’s presence in the building, and CNN has not been able to verify the claim.

Demolishing the building, rather than a more targeted strike, has drawn intense criticism.

Reporters Without Borders, an NGO that works to protect journalists around the world, said it was calling on the International Criminal Court to investigate whether deliberately targeting media outlets constitutes a war crime.

But Israel has repeatedly accused Hamas of “deliberately” operating near buildings like hospitals and schools, thereby endangering civilians who risk becoming human shields.

In Gaza, more than 72,000 people are considered internally displaced, many of them finding shelter in dozens of schools, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Four Palestinians, including a local journalist, were killed and 10 others wounded in overnight Israeli raids on Gaza Wednesday, according to the official Palestinian news agency WAFA.

The journalist, Yusef Abu Hussein, was a broadcaster with Gaza radio station Al Aqsa Radio. He was killed in an Israeli strike targeting a house near the Sheikh Radwan cemetery, north of Gaza City, the WAFA report said.

Palestinians attend the funeral of a journalist working for Al-Aqsa radio. The journalist was killed when an Israeli strike hit his home north of Gaza City, on May 19.

In another development, four rockets were launched from Lebanon into Israeli territory on Wednesday afternoon, the IDF said. Israel responded with artillery fire.

A high ranking Lebanese security source told CNN that the rockets were fired from the area of Seddiqine, in south Lebanon. The source did not say the extent of the damage caused by the Israeli artillery response, but added that the Lebanese Army and United Nations peacekeeping force intensified their patrols last week in the area in an effort to prevent further launches from Lebanon.

Andrew Carey, Amir Tal, Ben Wedeman, Mick Krever in Jerusalem, journalist Lauren Izso in Ashdod, Ibrahim Dahman in Gaza, Helen Regan in Hong Kong, Tara John and Angela Dewan in London, and Ghazi Balkiz contributed to this report.