World

Mediators aim to extend truce in Gaza as last planned hostage releases begin

The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas began on Friday (Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies via AP)
The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas began on Friday (Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies via AP) The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas began on Friday (Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies via AP)

Hamas released 16 hostages late on Wednesday in the last swap for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel under the current Gaza truce as international mediators raced to seal another extension to allow further exchanges and prolong the halt of Israel’s air and ground offensive.

The Israeli military said a group of 10 Israeli women and children and four Thai nationals had been returned to Israel, where they were being taken to hospitals to be reunited with their families.

Earlier, two Russian-Israeli women were freed by Hamas in a separate release. Israel was set to free 30 Palestinian prisoners in return.

Israel Palestinians
Israel Palestinians A Red Cross convoy carrying Israeli hostages heads to Egypt from the Gaza Strip in Rafah during a temporary ceasefire between Israel and Hamas (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

Negotiators were working down to the wire to hammer out details for a further extension of the truce beyond its deadline of early Thursday.

The talks appear to be growing tougher as most of the women and children held by Hamas are freed, and the militants are expected to seek greater releases in return for freeing men and soldiers.

International pressure has mounted for the cease-fire to continue as long as possible after nearly eight weeks of Israeli bombardment and a ground campaign in Gaza that has killed thousands of Palestinians, uprooted three quarters of the population of 2.3 million and led to a humanitarian crisis.

Israel has welcomed the release of dozens of hostages in recent days and says it will maintain the truce if Hamas keeps freeing captives.

Still, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu underscored on Wednesday that Israel will resume its campaign to eliminate Hamas, which has ruled Gaza for 16 years and orchestrated the deadly attack on Israel that triggered the war.

“After this phase of returning our abductees is exhausted, will Israel return to fighting? So my answer is an unequivocal yes,” he said. “There is no way we are not going back to fighting until the end.”

Mr Netanyahu spoke ahead of a visit to the region planned this week by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to press for further extensions of the truce and hostage releases.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops killed two Palestinian boys — an 8-year-old and a 15-year-old — during a raid on the town of Jenin, Palestinian health officials said. Security footage showed a group of boys in the street who start to run, except for one who falls to the ground, bleeding.

The Israeli military said its troops fired on people who threw explosives at them, but did not specify it was referring to the boys, who are not seen throwing anything. Separately, the military said its troops killed two Islamic Jihad militants during the raid.

Weeks of heavy aerial bombardment and a ground invasion have demolished vast swathes of northern Gaza and killed thousands of Palestinians.

But it seems to have had little effect on Hamas’s rule, evidenced by its ability to conduct complex negotiations, enforce the ceasefire among other armed groups, and orchestrate the smooth release of hostages.

Call for prisoner release
Call for prisoner release Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, a former hostage who was released from captivity by Hamas last month, holds a photo of her husband Oded during a protest calling for the release of hostages still held in the Gaza Strip, in Tel Aviv (AP)

Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yehya Sinwar, and other commanders have likely relocated to the south, along with hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians who have packed into overflowing shelters.

Most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are now crammed into southern Gaza, with some three-quarters of them driven from their homes.

The truce has led to a frenzied rush to obtain supplies to feed their families as aid enters in greater, but still insufficient, amounts. Hanging over everyone is the fear that fighting will soon resume.

An Israeli ground invasion of the south could eventually ferret out Hamas’ leaders and demolish the rest of its militant infrastructure, including miles of tunnels, but at a cost in Palestinian lives and destruction that the United States, Israel’s main ally, seems unwilling to bear.

The Biden administration has told Israel that if it resumes the offensive it must operate with far greater precision, especially in the south.

That approach is unlikely to bring Hamas to its knees any time soon, and international pressure for a lasting ceasefire is already mounting.

Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, wrote on X: “How far both sides will be prepared to go in trading hostages and prisoners for the pause is about to be tested, but the pressures and incentives for both to stick with it are at the moment stronger than the incentives to go back to war.”

CIA director William Burns and David Barnea, who heads Israel’s Mossad spy agency, were in Qatar on Tuesday to discuss extending the cease-fire and releasing more hostages. Qatar has played a key role in mediating with Hamas, hosted the talks, which also included Egyptian mediators.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken will visit the region this week, and is also expected to push for a longer truce.

A joint statement from foreign ministers of the G7 group of wealthy democracies, which includes close allies of Israel, called for the “further extension of the pause” and for “protecting civilians and compliance with international law”.

The war began with Hamas’s attack into southern Israel on October 7, which killed more than 1,200 people, mostly civilians. The militants dragged some 240 people back into Gaza, including babies, children, women, soldiers, older adults and Thai farm labourers.

The Rafah Crossing
The Rafah Crossing The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas began on Friday (Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies via AP)

Israel responded with a devastating air campaign across Gaza and a ground invasion in the north. More than 13,300 Palestinians have been killed, roughly two-thirds of them women and minors, according to the health ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza, which does not differentiate between civilians and combatants.

Officials in Israel said 77 of its soldiers have been killed in the ground offensive, and it claims to have killed thousands of militants, without providing evidence.

The plight of the captives, and the lingering shock from the October 7 attack, has galvanised Israeli support for the war. But Mr Netanyahu is also under intense pressure to bring the hostages home, and could find it difficult to resume the offensive if there is a prospect for more releases.

Israel said Wednesday around 160 hostages are still held in Gaza. Of those, 126 are men and 35 are women. Four are under the age of 18, and 10 over the age of 75.

The numbers of women and children would allow an extension of another three or four days.

From its side, Israel has also been releasing Palestinian women and children.

For men — and especially soldiers — Hamas is expected to push for comparable releases of Palestinian men or prominent figures, a deal Israel may resist.

Israel has not said how many of the hostages are soldiers.

A total of 60 Israelis have been freed as part of the deal, most of whom appear physically well but shaken.

Another 21 hostages – 19 Thais, one Filipino and one Russian-Israeli – have been released in separate negotiations since the truce began.

Before the truce, Hamas released four hostages, and the Israeli army rescued one other. Two other hostages were found dead in Gaza.

So far, 180 Palestinians have been freed from Israeli prisons.

Most have been teenagers accused of throwing stones and firebombs during confrontations with Israeli forces. Several were women convicted by Israeli military courts of attempting to attack soldiers.