Five Israeli soldiers killed as Arab leaders head to Bahrain for Gaza-focused summit


An Israeli soldier operating in the Gaza Strip, amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. [AFP]

Five Israeli soldiers have been killed in the northern Gaza Strip, where intense fighting has resumed more than seven months into its war against Hamas militants.

Israel's military in a statement on Thursday said the soldiers were killed "in battle" on Wednesday without elaborating on the cause of their deaths.

The latest fatalities take the number of Israeli troops killed in the Gaza military campaign since the start of the ground offensive on October 27 to 278.

Fighting has raged in recent days in northern Gaza, with an Israeli army spokesman saying there were "attempts by Hamas to rebuild its military capabilities" months after Israel had declared the Palestinian armed group's command structure in the area dismantled.

Fierce battles and heavy Israeli bombardments have been reported in north Gaza's Jabalia refugee camp and the central Nuseirat camp since the army launched a "targeted" operation focusing on the southern city of Rafah in early May.

Meanwhile, Arab leaders are today gathering in Bahrain for a summit dominated by the Israel-Hamas war which has been raging in the Gaza Strip without a ceasefire in sight.

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi received by Bahrain's Crown Prince and Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa in Manama on May 15, 2024, ahead of the 33rd Arab League Summit. [AFP]

Heads of state and government began touching down on Wednesday in Manama, the capital of the Gulf nation, where the flags of the Arab League's 22 members were flying.

It is the first time the bloc has come together since an extraordinary summit in Riyadh, the capital of neighbouring Saudi Arabia, in November that also involved leaders from the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, based in the Saudi city of Jeddah.

At that meeting, leaders condemned Israeli forces' "barbaric" actions in Gaza but declined to approve punitive economic and political steps against the country, despite growing anger in the region and widespread support for the Palestinian cause.

That could change this time around as backing builds globally for a two-state solution long advocated by Arab countries, said Kuwaiti analyst Zafer al-Ajmi.

Western public opinion has become "more inclined to support the Palestinians and lift the injustice inflicted on them" since Israel's creation more than 70 years ago, Ajmi said.

Meanwhile, Israel has failed to achieve its war objectives including destroying Hamas and is now mired in fighting that has dragged on for more than seven months, he said.

The war broke out after Hamas's October 7 attack on southern Israel which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.

The militants also seized about 250 hostages, 128 of whom Israel estimates remain in Gaza, including 36 the military says are dead.

Israel's military retaliation has killed at least 35,233 people, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run Gaza's health ministry, and an Israeli siege has brought dire food shortages and the threat of famine.

Change of 'tone'

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday said nearly 500,000 people had been evacuated from the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where he is insisting on going after remaining Hamas battalions despite objections from US President Joe Biden.

He also disputed claims that Israeli operations there would trigger a "humanitarian catastrophe", though much of the international community remains squarely opposed to a Rafah invasion.

A pro-Palestinian activist is arrested by NYPD officers during a protest to mark the 76th anniversary of al-Nakba, or the catastrophe of the creation of the state of Israel, in the Queens borough of New York on May 15, 2024. [AFP]

Against that backdrop, and with mediator Qatar describing talks on a truce and hostage release deal as close to a stalemate, "the tone of Arab countries has changed", Ajmi said, raising the possibility that the final declaration out of Thursday's summit could include "binding" measures.

The message would be especially strong coming from a summit held in Bahrain, one of two Gulf countries along with the United Arab Emirates to normalise ties with Israel in 2020 under the US-brokered Abraham Accords.

Beyond the Israel-Hamas war, Arab leaders are also expected to discuss conflicts in Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Syria, whose President Bashar al-Assad is due to attend after returning to the Arab fold last year.

Attacks by Yemen's Huthis on Red Sea shipping, which the rebels say are intended as a show of solidarity with Palestinians, could also be on the agenda, said Bahraini analyst and journalist Mahmeed al-Mahmeed.

Bahrain joined a maritime coalition organised by Washington to counter those attacks.

"These vital sea lanes are not only important for countries in the region, but also for the global economy," Mahmeed said.