Israel and Hamas extend ceasefire to keep trading hostages for prisoners

Israel and Hamas extend ceasefire to keep trading hostages for prisoners

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Israel and Hamas agreed to continue an uneasy truce for at least another day to keep trading hostages in Gaza for Palestinian prisoners, as US secretary of state Antony Blinken landed in the region to try to facilitate the release of more hostages.

Qatar, which is mediating the pause in hostilities, said the Palestinian and Israeli sides had “reached an agreement to extend the humanitarian pause in the Gaza Strip for an additional day under the existing conditions, which are a cessation of all military activities and the entry of humanitarian aid to Gaza”.

The agreement, announced by both sides minutes before the ceasefire was set to expire, came after Hamas sent Israel a list of women and children it would free on Thursday, extending a hostage swap in which about 100 people have been freed by Hamas and more than 200 by Israel.

That includes 16 people freed from Gaza on Wednesday night, including 10 Israelis, two Israeli-Russian dual-nationals and four Thai citizens, according to Qatar’s foreign ministry. Israel in return freed 30 Palestinian women and children held in its jails.

Among these were Ahed Tamimi, a famous Palestinian protester, who was jailed as a teenager in 2018 for slapping an Israeli soldier in her home in the occupied West Bank and again recently for a Facebook post her family denies she made.

The 24-hour extension was less than what mediators had been hoping to secure, underscoring the agreement’s fragility.

The brokered pause in hostilities has survived several stumbles, including one over a delay in delivering humanitarian aid into Gaza and another that involved a brief exchange of fire between Israeli troops and Hamas fighters in the strip.

Humanitarian aid has provided relief to more than 2mn Palestinians trapped in Gaza, where Israel’s aerial bombardment and ground invasion has killed more than 14,800 people and reduced much of the besieged enclave to rubble.

The one-day extension means up to 10 more Israeli hostages will be released on Thursday in exchange for 30 Palestinian prisoners. Hamas has also freed other nationals in side agreements brokered by Qatar and countries including Russia, Thailand and the Philippines.

There have been discussions about a broader deal that could require Israel to commit to a more lasting halt to its offensive and release large numbers of Palestinian prisoners, including those convicted of murder.

In return, Hamas and other militant groups would release more hostages from Gaza, potentially including dozens of Israeli soldiers being held. But far-right members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government are opposed to a longer halt in hostilities, and two members of his cabinet attacked the ceasefire, warning that his coalition government was under threat if he pursued a more ambitious swap with Hamas.

The families of the hostages have pushed the government to “pay any price” to get their relatives out of Gaza, and the international community, including US President Joe Biden, has said they want to see the pauses in the fighting extended.

Netanyahu said on Wednesday that Israel would resume its military campaign “after completing this stage of the return of our hostages”, adding: “There is no situation in which we do not go back to fighting until the end.”

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