Hamas frees more hostages as Gaza truce expiry looms

Didier Lauras, Adel Zaaanoun - Agence France-Presse
Hamas frees more hostages as Gaza truce expiry looms
This handout picture released by the Israeli army shows former French-Israeli hostage, 12-year-old Eitan Yahalomi (C), reunited with his mother following his release by Hamas from the Gaza Strip, in Tel Aviv early on November 28, 2023. The Israeli military said on November 27, 2023 that 11 hostages released in the Gaza Strip were back on Israeli territory.
AFP / Israeli Army

PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES — More hostages were freed from Gaza on Wednesday in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, as mediators raced to broker another extension to the truce between Israel and Hamas hours before it was due to expire.

Underscoring the urgency, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Israel for talks on aid for Gaza and the truce, which is scheduled to end early Thursday after a six-day halt in fighting.

But in a sign of the challenges facing negotiators, a Hamas source said the Palestinian militant group was not satisfied with Israel's proposals for another extension.

"What is being proposed in the discussions to extend the truce is not the best," the source told AFP, adding that the talks were focused on extending the pause by "two days or more".

Israel's war cabinet was meeting late Wednesday over terms to extend the truce, media reports said.

As discussions continued, 10 Israeli hostages arrived back in Israel, among them five women, three children and two 18-year-old men, the prime minister's office said.

Shortly after their arrival was confirmed, Israel's prison service said 30 Palestinian prisoners had been released, including well-known activist Ahed Tamimi.

Six groups of hostages have now been released under the truce agreement brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the United States.

Another four Thai hostages were also freed and arrived in Egypt Wednesday, along with two women, holding dual Russian and Israeli citizenship, outside the terms of the deal.

The release of the two women was described by Hamas as in recognition of the "efforts" of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The truce has brought a temporary halt to fighting that began on October 7 when Hamas militants poured over the border into Israel, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping about 240, according to Israeli authorities.

Israel's subsequent air and ground campaign in Gaza has killed nearly 15,000 people, also mostly civilians, according to Hamas officials, and reduced large parts of the north of the territory to rubble.

'Epic humanitarian catastrophe' 

As efforts intensified to extend the pause in fighting, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres demanded a "true humanitarian ceasefire".

Gazans are "in the midst of an epic humanitarian catastrophe," Guterres told a UN Security Council meeting, after seven weeks of bombing that have left buildings levelled and inhabitants short of food and water.

Since the truce began on November 24, 70 Israeli hostages have been freed in return for 210 Palestinian prisoners.

Around 30 foreigners, most of them Thais living in Israel, have been freed outside the terms of the deal.

Complicating matters, some of the remaining hostages in Gaza are in the hands of another Palestinian militant group, Islamic Jihad.

Its spokesman Musab al-Breim told AFP on Tuesday that "the war is now continuing in indirect negotiations with the Israeli occupier".

He said his group and Hamas were "committed" to respecting the truce agreement "as long as the occupier does so, and we are ready to pursue a political route to make the occupier pay".

Baby hostage reported dead

Alongside emotional reunions, there were fresh reminders of the tragic stakes of the conflict.

Israel's army said it was investigating a report by Hamas's armed wing that a 10-month-old baby hostage, his four-year-old brother and their mother had all been killed in an Israeli bombing in Gaza.

The military was "assessing the accuracy of the information", it said in a statement. 

"Hamas is wholly responsible for the security of all hostages in the Gaza Strip," it added. "Hamas' actions continue to endanger the hostages, which include nine children."

With tensions high despite the truce, the Palestinian health ministry in the occupied West Bank said the Israeli army shot and killed an eight-year-old boy and a teenager in the territory on Wednesday.

The military said troops had "responded with live fire" after explosive devices had been hurled at them.

And there were clashes outside the Ofer Prison in the West Bank ahead of the latest prisoner releases, with five Palestinians wounded by live fire, including one in serious condition, the Palestinian Red Crescent said.

'Willing to extend truce'

After the pause in hostilities entered its sixth day, a source close to Hamas told AFP on condition of anonymity that the militant group "informed the mediators that it is willing to extend the truce for four days".

Under that arrangement, "the movement would be able to release Israeli prisoners that it, other resistance movements and other parties hold during this period, according to the terms of the existing truce," the source added.

Speaking after a NATO meeting in Brussels, Blinken said he would be "focused on doing what we can to extend the pause so that we continue to get more hostages out and more humanitarian assistance in".

The World Food Programme has warned that Gaza's population faces a "high risk of famine if WFP is not able to provide continued access to food."

Conditions in the territory are "catastrophic", the agency's Middle East director Corinne Fleischer said.

The spokesman for the Hamas-run territory's health ministry, Ashraf al-Qudra, told AFP Wednesday that doctors found five premature babies dead in Gaza City's Al-Nasr hospital.

'Everything is gone' 

An estimated 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza have been forced to leave their homes, more than half the territory's population, according to the United Nations.

"I discovered that my house had been completely destroyed -- 27 years of my life to build it and everything is gone," said Taghrid al-Najjar, 46, after returning to her home in southeastern Gaza.

Israel has made clear it sees the truce as an interlude to ensure hostage releases before its war to destroy Hamas continues, but Blinken said he believed an extension was in Israel's interest because "they're also intensely focused on bringing their people home".

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the Security Council that any resumption of fighting threatened to "turn into a calamity that devours the whole region".

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