AP/ PTI

Mediators look to extend truce in Gaza on its final day, with one more hostage swap planned

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Rafah (Gaza Strip): International mediators worked on Wednesday to extend the truce in Gaza, hoping the territory’s Hamas rulers will keep freeing hostages in return for the release of Palestinian prisoners and further respite from Israel’s air and ground offensive. It will otherwise expire within a day.

Israel has welcomed the release of dozens of hostages in recent days and says it will maintain the truce if Hamas keeps freeing captives. But its other major goal — the annihilation of the armed group that has ruled Gaza for 16 years — could be slipping out of reach.

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’ rule, evidenced by its ability to conduct complex negotiations, enforce the cease-fire among other armed groups, and orchestrate the smooth release of hostages.

Hamas’ 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.

An Israeli ground invasion of the south could eventually ferret out Hamas’ leaders and demolish the rest of its militant infrastructure, including kilometres 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 cease-fire is already mounting.

“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,” Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, wrote on X.

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 was set to visit the region this week, and was 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’ October 7 attack into southern Israel, in which it killed over 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.

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.

Israel says 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 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also under intense pressure to bring the hostages home, and could find it difficult to resume the offensive if there’s a prospect for more releases.

Hamas is still believed to be holding around 150 hostages — enough to extend the cease-fire for another two weeks under the current arrangement of releasing 10 each day. But it is expected to drive a harder bargain for the release of Israeli soldiers, likely demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners convicted of deadly attacks.

In the latest swap, nine women and a teenager, as well as two Thai nationals, were freed on Tuesday and returned to Israel. The 17-year-old girl could be seen walking alongside Hamas militants to a waiting Red Cross Jeep with her small, white-haired dog named Bella. Soon after, Israel released 30 Palestinian prisoners.

After being extended by one day, the truce is due to end after one more exchange on Wednesday night.

A total of 60 Israelis have been freed as part of the truce, 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. Two other hostages were found dead in Gaza.

The latest swap brought to 180 the number of Palestinian women and teenagers 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 deadly attacks. Palestinians have celebrated the release of people they see as having resisted Israel’s decades-long military occupation of lands they want for a future state.

The cease-fire has brought calm to Gaza and increased deliveries of humanitarian aid, allowing people to stock up on food, water and fuel after weeks of severe shortages. Some have been able to sift through the rubble of their homes and bury relatives, but Israel has barred people from returning to the north.

On Tuesday, Israel and Hamas blamed each other for a brief exchange of fire in northern Gaza, but it did not appear to endanger the truce. Palestinian militants have halted rocket fire into Israel, as has Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which had repeatedly traded fire with Israeli forces along the northern border since the start of the war.

Israel’s bombardment and ground offensive have displaced more than 1.8 million people inside Gaza, nearly 80 per cent of the territory’s population, and most have sought refuge in the south, according to the UN.

The cease-fire has allowed increased aid delivered by 160 to 200 trucks a day into Gaza, but that is less than half what Gaza was importing before the fighting, even as needs have soared.

As UN-run shelters have overflowed, many have been forced to sleep on the streets outside. Rain and cold winds sweeping across Gaza have made conditions even more miserable.

On Tuesday, Hanan Tayeh returned to the ruins of her destroyed home in central Gaza.

“I came to get anything for my daughters. Winter has come, and I have nothing for them to wear,” she said.

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