Further extension of tenuous truce could be challenging
Israel has released another group of Palestinian prisoners, hours after Hamas freed additional Israeli hostages under a last-minute agreement to extend their ceasefire by another day in Gaza. But any further extension renewal, now in its eighth day, could prove more challenging, as Hamas is expected to set a higher price for many of the remaining hostages.
Hamas freed six hostages hours after releasing two Israeli women yesterday. All were handed over to the Red Cross in Gaza after eight weeks in captivity. They were brought to Israel for medical evaluations and to be reunited with their families, the Israeli military said.
A busload of 30 Palestinian prisoners released by Israel was welcomed home in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Dozens of men, some holding green Hamas flags, greeted the prisoners. The men were hugged as the crowd chanted “God is great”.
During the truce, at least 10 Israelis a day, along with other nationals, have been freed by Hamas in return for Israel’s release of at least 30 Palestinian prisoners.
Asked why Hamas yesterday released fewer than 10 hostages, as outlined in the ceasefire agreement, the military’s chief spokesman, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, noted that 12 Israeli citizens had been released the day before, implying that the overall total had met Israeli demands.
“We insist on getting the maximum possible," Hagari said. "It’s been that way every day and also today.”
International pressure has mounted for the truce to continue as long as possible, after weeks of Israeli bombardment and a ground campaign following Hamas’s deadly October 7 attack on Israel that triggered the war.
Thousands of Palestinians in Gaza have been killed, and more than three-quarters of the population of 2.3 million have been uprooted, leading to a humanitarian crisis.
Israel has vowed to resume the fighting – with the goal of dismantling Hamas – once the ceasefire ends.
The ceasefire was set to expire overnight, though international mediators were working to extend it.
The talks appeared to be growing tougher, with Hamas having already freed most of the women and children it kidnapped on October 7. The militants are expected to make greater demands in return for freeing scores of civilian men and soldiers. Roughly 140 hostages are believed to remain in Hamas captivity.
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials on his third visit to the region since the start of the war, said he hoped the ceasefire could be extended and more hostages could be released.
Blinken also said that if Israel resumed the war and moved against southern Gaza to pursue Hamas, it must do so in “compliance with international humanitarian law", and must have “a clear plan in place” to protect civilians.
Most of Gaza's population is now crammed into the south, with no exit, raising questions over how an Israeli offensive there can avoid heavy civilian casualties.
Qatar and Egypt, which have played a key role in mediating, were seeking to prolong the deal by another two days, according to Diaa Rashwan, the head of Egypt’s State Information Service.
Palestinian gunmen yesterday opened fire on people waiting for buses along a main highway entering Jerusalem, killing at least three people and wounding several others, according to Israeli police.
The two attackers, brothers from a neighbourhood in annexed east Jerusalem, were killed. Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack, casting it as retaliation for the killing of women and children in Gaza and the occupied West Bank and other Israeli “crimes”.
The attack did not appear to threaten the truce in Gaza. But escalating violence – including Israeli raids – in the West Bank and east Jerusalem could blow back to wreck the quiet in Gaza, even though these areas are not covered under the ceasefire.
Netanyahu is under intense pressure from the families of the hostages to bring them home. But his far-right governing partners are also pushing him to continue the war until Hamas is destroyed, and could abandon his coalition if he is seen as making too many concessions.
Israel says it will maintain the truce until Hamas stops releasing captives, at which point it will resume military operations.
The initial truce, which began on November 24 and has now been extended twice, called for the release of women and children. For soldiers and the civilian men still in captivity, Hamas is expected to demand the release of high-profile Palestinians convicted of deadly attacks, something Israel has strongly resisted in the past.
Israel says around 125 men are still held hostage, including several dozen soldiers.
The Palestinians released by Israel include 22 teenagers and eight Israeli Palestinian women who were arrested since the war started, most of them for making pro-Palestinian social media posts, according to the Palestinian Prisoners Club, which advocates for prisoners.
The 240 Palestinians released so far under the ceasefire have mostly been teenagers accused of throwing stones and firebombs during confrontations with Israeli forces. Several of the freed women were convicted by military courts of attempting to attack soldiers, some of them after being found carrying scissors or knives near security positions.
A total of 83 Israelis, including dual nationals, have been freed during the truce. Most have appeared physically well but shaken. Another 24 hostages – 23 Thais and one Filipino – have also been released, including several men.
Before the ceasefire, Hamas released four hostages, and the Israeli army rescued one. Two others were found dead in Gaza.
Israel’s bombardment and invasion in Gaza have killed more than 13,300 Palestinians, 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. It claims to have killed thousands of militants, without providing evidence.