November 29, 2023 - 9:32 am
Updated November 29, 2023 - 9:40 pm
JERUSALEM — Israel and Hamas on Thursday agreed to extend a temporary truce by another day minutes before it was set to expire, said Qatar, which has been mediating between the two sides.
Negotiations on extending it came down to the wire, with last-minute disagreements over the hostages to be freed by Hamas in exchange for another day of a halt in fighting.
Word of the extension came just as the truce was to expire at 7 a.m. local time Thursday (9 p.m. PST Wednesday). The Qatari Foreign Ministry said the truce was being extended under the same terms as in the past, under which Hamas has released 10 Israeli hostages per day in exchange for the release of 30 Palestinian prisoners.
The announcement followed a last-minute standoff earlier Thursday, with Hamas saying Israel had rejected a proposed list that included seven living captives and the remains of three who the group said were killed in previous Israeli airstrikes. Israel later said Hamas submitted an improved list, paving the way for the extension.
Negotiators had been working into Thursday to hammer out details for a further extension of the truce. The expectation had been to extend the pause in fighting for at least another day or two, with the focus on releasing women and children.
The talks appear to be growing tougher as most of the women and children held by Hamas are freed, as the terrorists are expected to seek greater releases in return for freeing men and soldiers.
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, Netanyahu underscored on Wednesday that Israel will resume its campaign to eliminate Hamas, which has ruled Gaza for 16 years and orchestrated the deadly terrorist 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.”
He spoke ahead of a visit to the region by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to press for further extensions of the truce and hostage releases. Blinken arrived in Israel late Wednesday.
So far, the Israeli onslaught in Gaza 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 release of hostages. Hamas leaders, including Yehya Sinwar, have likely relocated to the south.
The Biden administration has told Israel that if it launches an offensive in the south, it must operate with far greater precision.
Late Wednesday, the Israeli military said a group of 10 Israeli women and children and four Thai nationals were returned to Israel and taken to hospitals to be reunited with their families. Two Russian-Israeli women were freed by Hamas in a separate release.
Hours later, Israel freed more Palestinian prisoners, expected to number 30 under the terms of the truce deal.
Israel’s hostage dilemma
The plight of the captives and shock from Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack in southern Israel have galvanized Israeli support for the war. But Netanyahu is under pressure to bring the hostages home.
Since the initial truce began on Friday, both sides have been releasing women and children. Israeli officials say Gaza terrorists still hold around 20 women, who would all be released in a few days if the swaps continue at the current rate.
After that, keeping the truce going depends on tougher negotiations over the release of around 126 men Israel says are held captive, including several dozen soldiers.
For men — and especially soldiers — Hamas is expected to push for comparable releases of Palestinian men or prominent detainees.
An Israeli official involved in hostage negotiations said talks on a further extension for release of civilian males and soldiers were still preliminary, and that a deal would not be considered until all the women and children are out. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because negotiations were ongoing.
With Wednesday’s releases, a total of 73 Israelis, including dual nationals, have been freed during the six-day truce, most of whom appear physically well but shaken. Another 24 hostages — 23 Thais and one Filipino — have also been released.
Before the cease-fire, Hamas released four hostages, and the Israeli army rescued one. Two others were found dead in Gaza.
Hamas kidnapped some 240 people during the terrorist attack on southern Israel that began the war, including babies, children, women, soldiers, older adults and Thai farm laborers. It killed over 1,200 people in the Oct. 7 terrorist attack, mostly civilians.
Israel’s retaliatory bombardment and ground invasion in Gaza have killed more than 13,300 Palestinians, 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. Israel says it has killed thousands of terrorists.
So far, most Palestinians released 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. Under the truce deal, three prisoners were released for every Israeli hostage.