AP

Truce in Gaza endures another day and more hostages are freed, but tougher talks ahead

Nov 30, 2023, 8:33 AM

The effects of destruction caused by air strikes on homes seen on November 30, 2023 in Khan Yunis, ...

The effects of destruction caused by air strikes on homes seen on November 30, 2023 in Khan Yunis, Gaza. A temporary ceasefire between Israel and Hamas has held since Friday, offering Gaza residents respite from constant bombardment. The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says that over 14,500 people in Gaza have been killed since Oct. 7, when Israel launched a military offensive in retaliation for Hamas's deadly cross-border attacks. (Photo by Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel and Hamas agreed at the last minute Thursday to extend their cease-fire in Gaza by another day to allow more hostages and prisoners to be released. But any further renewal of the truce, now in its seventh day, could prove more daunting since Hamas is expected to set a higher price for many of the remaining hostages.

Thursday afternoon, Hamas freed two Israeli hostages who were brought back into Israel, with more expected to follow, the Israeli military said. At least 10 Israelis a day, along with other nationals, have been released during the truce, in return for Israel’s release of at least 30 Palestinian prisoners.

International pressure has mounted for the truce to continue as long as possible after nearly eight weeks of Israeli bombardment and a ground campaign in Gaza that have killed thousands of Palestinians, uprooted more than three-quarters of the population of 2.3 million and led to a humanitarian crisis.

Israel has vowed to resume its offensive once the cease-fire expires.

And the talks appear to be growing tougher, with Hamas having already freed most of the women and children kidnapped during the deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel that triggered the war. The militants are expected to make greater demands in return for freeing scores of civilian men and soldiers.

U.S. 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 cease-fire could be extended and more hostages could be released.

“This process is producing results. It’s important, and we hope that it can continue,” he said.

Qatar and Egypt, which have played a key role in mediating, are now seeking to prolong the deal by another two days, according to Diaa Rashwan, the head of Egypt’s State Information Service.

As word of Thursday’s extension came, Palestinian gunmen 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 neighborhood 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 cease-fire. On Wednesday, Israeli troops killed two Palestinian boys during a raid in Jenin, according to Palestinian health officials. The Israeli military separately said the raid killed two Islamic Jihad militants.

INCREASINGLY TENSE HOSTAGE TALKS

Netanyahu is under intense pressure from 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 aimed at eliminating the group, even as the Biden administration has urged it to operate with far greater precision if it resumes its offensive.

“As soon as Hamas stops releasing mothers, we’re coming for the fathers. As soon as it stops releasing daughters, we’re coming for the sons,” Israeli government spokesman Eylon Levy said. “We are going to continue putting unrelenting military pressure on Hamas to release everyone.”

The initial truce, which began Friday and has now been extended twice, called for the release of women and children. Israeli officials say Gaza militants still hold around 30 women and children, who would all be released within a few days at the current rate.

It’s not clear how many of the women might be soldiers. 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.

An Israeli official involved in hostage negotiations said talks on a further extension for the release of civilian men 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 talks were ongoing.

The 210 Palestinians released, including at least seven Israeli Palestinians, have been women and teenagers. The teens were largely accused of throwing stones and firebombs during confrontations with Israeli forces. A number of the women were detained for pro-Palestinian social media posts that Israeli authorities said constituted incitement of violence. Several were convicted by military courts of attempting to attack soldiers, some of them after being found carrying scissors or knives near security positions.

With Wednesday’s releases, a total of 73 Israelis, including dual nationals, have been freed during the truce, most of whom appear physically well but shaken. Another 24 hostages — 23 Thais and one Filipino — have also been released, including several men.

Before the cease-fire, Hamas released four hostages, and the Israeli army rescued one. Two others were found dead in Gaza. On Thursday, the military confirmed the death of Ofir Tzarfati, who was believed to be among the hostages, without providing any further details. The 27-year-old attended a music festival where at least 360 people were killed and several others were kidnapped on Oct. 7.

Hamas and other Palestinian militants killed over 1,200 people — mostly civilians — in their wide-ranging attack across southern Israel that day and took around 240 people captive. Authorities have only ever provided approximate figures.

Israel’s bombardment and ground 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.

The toll is likely much higher, as officials have only sporadically updated the count since Nov. 11. The ministry says thousands more people are feared dead under the rubble.

Israel says 77 of its soldiers have been killed in the ground offensive. It claims to have killed thousands of militants, without providing evidence.

IN GAZA, AN ANXIOUS RESPITE

During the pause in fighting, Palestinians in Gaza have been consumed by the search for aid and horror at the extent of destruction.

Residents described entire residential blocks as leveled in Gaza City and surrounding areas in the north. The smell of decomposing bodies trapped under collapsed buildings fills the air, said Mohammed Mattar, a 29-year-old resident of the city who along with other volunteers searched for the dead.

In the south, the truce has allowed more aid to be delivered from Egypt, up to 200 trucks a day. But humanitarian officials say it is not enough, given that most now depend on outside aid. Over 1 million displaced people have sought refuge in U.N.-run shelters, with many forced to sleep outside in cold, rainy weather because of overcrowding.

At a distribution center in Rafah, large crowds line up daily for bags of flour but supplies run out quickly.

“Every day, we come here,” said one woman in line, Nawal Abu Namous. “We spend money on transportation to get here, just to go home with nothing.”

___

Jobain reported from Rafah, Gaza Strip, and Chehayeb from Beirut. Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Tel Aviv, Israel, Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed.

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Truce in Gaza endures another day and more hostages are freed, but tougher talks ahead