November 28, 2023 - 9:43 am
Updated November 28, 2023 - 12:22 pm
TEL AVIV, Israel — A fragile truce between Israel and Hamas held for a fifth day Tuesday, as international mediators in Qatar worked to extend it and more hostages were freed from Gaza.
The latest swap of hostages for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel got underway Tuesday evening. Israel said 10 of its citizens and 2 foreigners were freed by Hamas and had entered Egypt.
Later on Tuesday, Israel released 30 Palestinian prisoners.
For the first time since the cease-fire began, Israel and Hamas traded accusations of a serious violation.
The Israeli military said three explosive devices were detonated near its troops at two locations in northern Gaza, and that terrorists at one site opened fire on the troops, who fired back. It said its troops were in positions in accordance with the terms of the truce,
Hamas, in turn, accused Israel of committing a “blatant breach of the cease-fire,” triggering retaliation by its fighters, without providing details. It said in a statement that it “was still committed to the cease-fire so long as the enemy is committed to it,” and urged mediators to intervene.
It was not immediately clear if the exchange posed a threat to the truce. But it underscored the fragility of the truce in northern Gaza, where Israeli forces and Hamas fighters are holding their positions in close proximity to each other, each preparing for a potential resumption of fighting when the cease-fire ends.
The sides agreed to extend their truce through Wednesday, with another two planned exchanges of terrorist-held hostages for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. But Israel has vowed to resume the war with “full force” to destroy Hamas once it’s clear that no more hostages will be freed under the deal.
The Biden administration has told Israel it must avoid “significant further displacement” and mass casualties among Palestinian civilians if it resumes the offensive, and that it must operate with more precision in southern Gaza than it has in the north, according to U.S. officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House.
CIA director William Burns and David Barnea, who heads Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, were in Qatar, a key mediator with Hamas, to discuss extending the cease-fire and releasing more hostages, a diplomat said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks. A U.S. official confirmed Burns was in Qatar, speaking anonymously because the director’s travel plans are not publicized for security reasons.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to visit the region this week, also with an eye to extending the truce.
Hamas and other terrorists are still holding about 160 people, out of the 240 seized in their Oct. 7 assault into southern Israel that ignited the war. That’s enough to potentially extend the truce for another two weeks under the existing framework brokered by the Qatar, Egypt and the U.S., but Hamas is expected to make much higher demands for the release of captive soldiers.
More than 1,200 people have been killed in Israel since the start of the war, mostly civilians killed in the initial attack.
At least 77 soldiers have been killed in Israel’s ground offensive. Israel says it has killed thousands of terrorists.
Israel has vowed to end Hamas’ 16-year rule in Gaza and crush its military capabilities.
Israel blames the soaring casualty toll on Hamas, accusing the terrorists of using civilians as human shields while operating in dense, residential areas.
HOSTAGES AND PRISONERS RELEASED
The latest group of Israeli hostages freed from Gaza — nine women and a 17-year-old — was being flown to hospitals in Israel, the Israeli military said.
Tuesday’s hostage release brought to 60 the number of Israelis freed under the terms of the truce between Israel and Hamas.
An additional 21 hostages of various nationalities have been released in separate negotiations since the truce began, including 17 Thais, one Filipino and one Russian-Israeli.
Hamas previously released four Israeli hostages, and the Israeli army rescued one during its offensive in Gaza. Two other hostages were found dead in Gaza during the ground offensive.
So far, 150 Palestinians have been released from Israeli prisons.
The Palestinian prisoners released so far have been mostly teenagers accused of throwing stones and firebombs during confrontations with Israeli forces. Some were convicted by Israeli courts of attempting to carry out deadly attacks.
The freed hostages have mostly stayed out of the public eye, but details of their captivity have started to emerge.
In one of the first interviews with a freed hostage, 78-year-old Ruti Munder told Israel’s Channel 13 television that she was initially fed well in captivity but that conditions worsened as shortages took hold. She said she was kept in a “suffocating” room and slept on plastic chairs with a sheet for nearly 50 days.
NORTHERN GAZA IN RUINS
The cease-fire has allowed residents who remained in Gaza City and other parts of the north to venture out to survey the destruction and try to locate and bury relatives. Footage from northern Gaza, the focus of the Israeli ground offensive, shows nearly every building damaged or destroyed.
A U.N.-led aid consortium estimates that over 234,000 homes have been damaged across Gaza and 46,000 have been completely destroyed, amounting to around 60 percent of the housing stock in the territory, which is home to some 2.3 million Palestinians.
More than 13,300 Palestinians have been killed since the war began, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza, which does not differentiate between civilians and combatants.
The U.N. says the truce has allowed in 160 to 200 trucks a day, making it possible to scale up the delivery of food, water and medicine to the largest volume since the start of the war, and to bring in fuel for homes, hospitals and water treatment plants.
Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani and Zeke Miller in Washington, Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.