World

Truce deal raises hopes hostages will be freed in Gaza

Smoke rises following an Israeli air strike in the Gaza Strip (AP)
Smoke rises following an Israeli air strike in the Gaza Strip (AP) Smoke rises following an Israeli air strike in the Gaza Strip (AP)

Israel and Hamas have reached an agreement over a four-day halt to the devastating war in Gaza.

The truce will be accompanied by the release of dozens of hostages held by the militant group in return for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, mediators said.

The deal marks the biggest diplomatic breakthrough since Hamas’ October 7 rampage into southern Israel ignited a war that has devastated vast swaths of Gaza and raised fears of a wider conflict across the Middle East.

The Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, which has played a key role in mediating with Hamas, announced the deal without saying when it would go into effect. Fifty hostages will be released in stages, in exchange for what Hamas said would be 150 Palestinian prisoners.

Both sides will release women and children first, and the supply of humanitarian aid flowing into the besieged territory will be ramped up.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would resume the war after the truce and keep fighting “until we achieve all our goals”, including the defeat of Hamas.

Residents in Gaza City said the fighting there had intensified overnight into Wednesday, with gunfire, heavy artillery and air strikes in central neighbourhoods.

The announcement capped weeks of indirect Qatari-led negotiations between Israel and Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seized Gaza from the internationally recognised Palestinian Authority in 2007.

The United States and Egypt were also involved in stop-and-go talks to free some of the roughly 240 hostages captured by Hamas and other militants during their wide-ranging October 7 raid.

US President Joe Biden welcomed the deal, saying Mr Netanyahu has committed to supporting an “extended pause” to make sure that the hostages are released and humanitarian aid can be sent to Gaza.

Qatar’s Prime Minister and top diplomat, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said he hoped the deal would eventually lead to a permanent ceasefire and “serious talks” on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel said that the truce would be extended an extra day for every additional 10 hostages released by Hamas.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it is standing by to assist any swap.

Israel’s justice ministry published a list of 300 prisoners eligible for release as part of the deal, mainly teenagers detained over the past year for rock-throwing and other minor offences. Under Israeli law, the public has 24 hours to object to any release.

Hostage photos
Hostage photos A man passes by a fence with photographs of hostages, mostly Israeli civilians who were abducted during the unprecedented Hamas attack on Israel, in Ramat Gan (AP)

As the full extent of the devastation becomes known and as hostages are released, pressure could grow on Israel to end its war without achieving its goal of crushing Hamas.

Even the US, Israel’s chief backer, has expressed concerns about the heavy toll on Gaza’s civilian population.

An air strike overnight hit a residential building in the southern town of Khan Younis, killing 17 people, including children, said Ahmad Balouny, a relative of the deceased.

An Associated Press reporter saw the bodies of two children pulled from the rubble, one of them badly burned.

Gaza graphic
Gaza graphic (PA Graphics)

Despite the massive destruction across Gaza and the killing of thousands of Palestinian civilians, Hamas leader Yehya Sinwar will likely present the release of the prisoners – seen by most Palestinians as heroes resisting occupation – as a major achievement, and declare victory if the war ends without removing Hamas from power.

In a statement, Hamas said hundreds of trucks carrying humanitarian aid – including fuel – would be allowed to enter Gaza. It said Israeli aircraft would stop flying over southern Gaza for the duration of the four-day ceasefire and for six hours daily in the north.

The war erupted in early October, when several thousand Hamas militants broke through Israel’s formidable defencbes and poured into the south, killing at least 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and capturing scores more.

Air strike damage in Gaza
Air strike damage in Gaza Palestinians gather in front of a building hit by an Israeli on the Gaza Strip in Nusseirat refugee camp (AP)

Israel responded with weeks of devastating air strikes on Gaza, followed by a ground invasion.

More than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed during the Israeli offensive, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory. It does not differentiate between civilians and militants, though some two-thirds of the dead have been identified as women and minors.

The invasion has caused vast destruction in northern Gaza, including Gaza City, displaced more than 1.7 million people and caused severe shortages of food, medicine and other basics throughout the territory.

Israel cut off all fuel imports at the start of the war, causing a territory-wide power blackout.

Israel has rejected growing international criticism and vowed to press ahead until it destroys Hamas’ military and governing capabilities, and all hostages are freed.