Israel and Hamas look to extend cease-fire on its final day, with one more hostage swap planned
Tel Aviv: International mediators were pressing to extend a cease-fire in Gaza that has halted the deadliest Israeli-Palestinian violence in decades but is set to expire after Monday, as Israel and Hamas prepared for a fourth exchange of militant-held hostages for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.
Israel has said it would extend the cease-fire by one day for every 10 additional hostages released. Hamas has also said it hopes to extend the four-day truce, which came into effect Friday after several weeks of indirect negotiations mediated by the United States, Qatar and Egypt.
But Israel also says it remains committed to crushing Hamas’ military capabilities and ending its 16-year rule over Gaza. That would likely mean expanding its ground offensive from devastated northern Gaza to the south, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have crammed into United Nations shelters, and where dire conditions persist despite the ramping up of aid delivery under the truce.
The release of dozens of people — mostly women and children — who were among the roughly 240 captured by Hamas in its wide-ranging Oct 7 attack into southern Israel that ignited the war has rallied Israelis behind calls to return the rest of them.
Sixty-two hostages have been released, one was freed by Israeli forces, and two were found dead inside Gaza.
“We can get all hostages back home. We have to keep pushing,” two relatives of Abigail Edan, a 4-year-old girl and dual Israeli American citizen who was released Sunday, said in a statement.
Families of the hostages have led mass marches and demonstrations accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of not doing enough to bring them home, and the mounting pressure could push him to extend the truce and make additional concessions to Hamas. But Israel also remains deeply shaken by the Oct 7 attack and determined to remove the militant group as a threat.
“At the end of the day we will return every one,” Netanyahu said of the hostages, as he donned body armour and paid a rare visit Sunday to troops inside Gaza. “We are continuing until the end, until victory. Nothing will stop us.”
On Sunday, Hamas freed 17 more hostages, including 14 Israelis, in a third exchange under the four-day truce. In turn, Israel released 39 Palestinian prisoners.
Most hostages appeared to be physically well, but 84-year-old Elma Avraham was airlifted to Israel’s Soroka Medical Centre in life-threatening condition because of inadequate care, the hospital said.
Those released Sunday included nine children and three Thai nationals. With a total of 17 freed, Thailand said it was pursuing the safe return of the 15 remaining Thai hostages, who were the largest single group of foreigners held by the militant group. Thais working in Israel are mostly employed as semi-skilled farm labourers.
The Palestinian prisoners released were mostly teenagers accused of throwing stones and firebombs during confrontations with Israeli forces, or of less-serious offenses. Many Palestinians view prisoners held by Israel, including those implicated in attacks, as heroes resisting occupation.
A fourth exchange is expected on Monday, for a total of 50 Israeli hostages and 150 Palestinian prisoners as agreed upon in the cease-fire deal.
The freed hostages have mostly stayed out of the public eye, but details of their captivity have started to trickle out.
Merav Raviv, whose three relatives were released on Friday, said they had been fed irregularly and lost weight. One reported eating mainly bread and rice and sleeping on a makeshift bed of chairs pushed together. Hostages sometimes had to wait for hours to use the bathroom, she said.
More than 13,300 Palestinians have been killed since the war began, 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. More than 1,200 people have been killed on the Israeli side, mostly civilians killed in the initial attack. Some 77 soldiers have been killed in Israel’s ground offensive.
The pause has given some respite to Gaza’s 2.3 million people after weeks of relentless Israeli bombardment that has driven three-quarters of the population from their homes and levelled entire neighbourhoods.
But many say it’s not nearly enough.
Amani Taha, a widow and mother of three who fled from northern Gaza to stay with a host family in the southern city of Rafah, said she had only managed to get one canned meal from a UN distribution centre since the cease-fire began. She helps other families in the neighbourhood cook over firewood in return for food for her sons, ages 4 to 10.
She said the crowds have overwhelmed local markets and gas stations as people try to stock up on basics. “People were desperate and went out to buy whenever they could,” she said. “They are extremely worried that the war will return.”
Palestinians who remained in northern Gaza, which was home to more than a million people before the war, have emerged to scenes of widespread devastation, with building after building either demolished or heavily damaged. The Israeli military has barred Palestinians who fled south from returning.
The UN says the truce made it possible to scale up the delivery of food, water and medicine to the largest volume since the start of the war. But the 160 to 200 trucks a day is still less than half what Gaza was importing before the fighting, even as humanitarian needs have soared.