Tensions remain sky-high between Israel and militant groups in Gaza today, even as a temporary deal orchestrated by Qatar allows urgently-needed medicines to reach two Israeli civilians held hostage by Hamas since last autumn.
Israel strikes Gaza overnight in response to rocket fire
The Israeli military struck targets in Gaza overnight into Wednesday in response to rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave the evening before. The rockets, which caused no damage in Israel, were the first since late November when the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire was agreed. However, Hamas denied responsibility for the rocket fire.
According to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), fighter jets hit a weapons manufacturing site located in a Hamas military base in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis early this morning. The IDF said the site was a “key compound that manufactures different types of weapons, including rockets.”
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza said that at least four people, including a child, were injured in the Israeli strikes. The extent of the injuries was not clear based on the initial reports.
Qatar brokers limited deal for medicine delivery to hostages
As tensions boiled over, the Gulf state of Qatar helped broker a limited humanitarian deal between Israel and Hamas. Two Qatari planes carrying urgently-needed medicines and medical supplies landed in Egypt yesterday evening, destined for the Gaza Strip.
The medicines will enable a temporary reprieve for two Israeli civilians held hostage by Hamas since September 2023. However, the deal does not seem to represent any long-term breakthrough in Egyptian-led efforts to solidify the ceasefire and prevent further escalation.
Hamas is holding Hisham al-Sayed, a Bedouin Arab from southern Israel, and two Israeli soldiers – Staff Sgt. Itay Svirsky and Sgt. Yossi Sharabi. They were captured by Hamas during an operation in September 2023. The two soldiers require regular medications due to existing medical conditions.
Qatari envoy meets with families of hostages
The arrival of the medicine shipment came after the Qatari envoy to Gaza, Mohammed Al-Emadi, visited Israel and met with the families of the Israeli hostages on Sunday. He updated them on the humanitarian situation of their relatives and efforts to negotiate improved treatment and access.
The families of Svirsky and Sharabi have sounded increasingly desperate alarms about the declining health of their sons over recent weeks. They have pleaded for access to their medications, with Itay Svirsky’s father particularly vocal in Israeli media about his son’s need for medications related to injuries from his capture.
Deal reached after night of tensions
The deal was reached late Tuesday night after the rocket fire from Gaza and retaliatory Israeli air strikes. Its announcement early Wednesday morning capped over 16 hours of tensions following the breakdown of the ceasefire.
Along with allowing entry of the two planes carrying medical supplies from Doha, the deal also provided for opening the Kerem Shalom and Erez crossings to allow fuel trucks and humanitarian aid into Gaza, according to a Hamas spokesman. These crossings represent crucial lifelines between Gaza and Israel and had been subject to tight restrictions under the ceasefire arrangement.
Netanyahu orders inspection of medical supplies
Citing security concerns about the medications entering Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the IDF to inspect and approve the shipments after their arrival in Egypt en route to Gaza.
“The prime minister has ordered the shipment be inspected by IDF medical personnel once it crosses into Israel, in order to ensure no contraband is smuggled and that the medications meet medical regulatory standards,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement Wednesday morning.
The supplies were transported by land from Egypt into Israel under this arrangement before continuing by truck into Gaza. Both Qatari envoy Al-Emadi and France have provided assurances that the medications were screened properly before transport from Doha.
Ceasefire under strain
Brokered by Egypt with support from the UN and Qatar, an “open-ended” ceasefire came into effect November 25, 2023 following several days of intense fighting. However, tensions have gradually escalated over subsequent weeks, placing the fragile truce under significant strain.
Restrictions on movement, aid, and construction materials through border crossings emerged as sticking points. Gaza militants also launched sporadic rocket fire over this period, typically attributed to fringe groups outside of Hamas’ central control. They have demanded further easing of Egyptian and Israeli restrictions under the ceasefire terms.
Israel has responded forcefully, including airstrikes on militant tunnel networks on January 2nd after several barrages of rocket fire. At least 46 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza by Israeli fire since the start of 2023, prior to last night’s airstrikes.
Gaza humanitarian situation dire
The humanitarian situation facing 2 million residents of the narrow coastal enclave remains severe after 16 years of conflict and blockade. Shortages of power, clean water, medical supplies persist.
Qatar has led relief and reconstruction efforts as tensions periodically erupt into open conflict. However, its aid deliveries have been frequently interrupted as violence flares or parties object to perceived bias.
Egypt continues mediation efforts
Egypt will likely attempt to build on this temporary deal to stabilize the ceasefire arrangement. However, significant hurdles must be cleared before improved access for aid and materials is permitted into Gaza or a more comprehensive prisoner swap with Hamas is concluded.
With tensions still extremely high, the clock is ticking to prevent the ceasefire from fully unraveling. The spiral of rocket fire, Israeli reprisals, and civilian suffering on both sides threatens to eventually trigger a severe escalation matching last November’s intense two-day conflict.
In the near term, much depends on the durability of this deal allowing entry of medical supplies and aid into Gaza. Extending the temporary reprieve for residents and hostages could open space for intensified Egyptian mediation on longer-term ceasefire measures.
However, absent guarantees from Hamas over rocket fire and signs of compromise from Netanyahu on border restrictions, the clock will continue ticking toward full resumption of open hostilities across the Gaza frontier.
Table: Timeline of recent escalatory events
| Date | Event |
| September 2023 | Hamas captures 1 Israeli Bedouin civilian and 2 IDF soldiers during undercover operation in Gaza
| November 2023 | Intense escalation between Israel & Gaza militant groups lasts 3 days, ends with ceasefire deal
| Jan 2, 2024 | Israel strikes militant tunnels in Gaza after barrages of rocket fire
| Jan 16 | Sporadic rocket fire from Gaza into Israel
| Jan 17 pre-dawn| Israeli airstrikes hit weapons site in Gaza
| Jan 17 | Two Qatari planes with medical supplies land in Egypt, bound for Gaza & hostages
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