Qatar-led negotiations between Israel and Hamas continue -source

Heavy bombardment seen on Israel-Gaza border at night

DOHA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Qatar-mediated negotiations between Israel and Hamas aimed at de-escalating fighting in Gaza continued on Saturday, a source briefed on the negotiations said, even as Israel intensified its assault on the enclave.

Talks have not broken down, but are taking place at a "much slower pace" than before the escalation from Friday evening, the source told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of negotiations.

Gaza's besieged people had barely any communications with the outside world on Saturday as Israeli jets dropped more bombs on the Hamas-ruled Palestinian enclave and military chiefs said a long-threatened ground offensive was gearing up.

Qatar has been conducting behind-the-scenes diplomacy for more than three weeks, speaking to Hamas officials and Israel to promote peace and secure the release of more than 200 hostages Hamas and other armed groups are holding in Gaza.

Qatar's mediation last week led to the release of two American hostages, a mother and daughter, and two elderly Israeli women.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday that efforts to secure the hostages' release will continue even during the Gaza ground offensive.

"We will utilize and exhaust every possibility to bring them home," Netanyahu said.

Earlier, the armed wing of Hamas said it had been close to reaching an agreement with Israel over the hostages, but Israel had "stalled" on that possibility.

Abu Ubaida, spokesman for the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, also said in a video speech the group would only release all its hostages if Israel freed all Palestinian prisoners.

Israel says 1,400 people, mostly civilians, were killed during the Hamas-led raid on Oct. 7 and 224 hostages were captured, many with foreign passports from 25 different countries.

Israel has bombed and attacked Gaza over the last three weeks more intensely than ever before and Palestinian health authorities say Israel's attacks have killed more than 7,000 Palestinians in Hamas-run Gaza.

Qatar, a tiny but wealthy energy and investment powerhouse that holds ambitious foreign policy goals, has a direct line of communication with Hamas, which has a political office in Doha. Qatari envoys have previously helped mediate truces between the Islamist group and Israel.

(Reporting by Andrew Mills in Doha, Emily Rose in Jerusalem and Hatem Maher and Enas Alashray in Cairo; Writing by Andrew Mills; editing by David Evans, Andrew Cawthorne and David Gregorio)