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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Hamas open to extension of Gaza truce, release of more Israeli hostages


A new group of 12 hostages was freed by Hamas yesterday after a 48-hour extension to an initial four-day truce. (AP pic)

GAZA: Hamas is willing to extend a truce for four days and release more Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, a source close to the group said today, as mediators sought a lasting halt to the conflict.

The current truce is scheduled to expire early tomorrow after a six-day pause in a conflict sparked by deadly Hamas attacks that prompted a devastating Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

With 60 Israeli hostages and 180 Palestinian prisoners already released and more set to walk free today under the agreement, conflict mediator Qatar said negotiators were working towards a “sustainable” ceasefire.

Hamas today “informed the mediators that it is willing to extend the truce for four days,” a source close to the Palestinian group told AFP on condition of anonymity.

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.

Qatar’s foreign ministry spokesman Majed Al Ansari told a Doha news conference yesterday that negotiators were seeking “a sustainable truce that will lead to further negotiations and eventually to an end…to this war.”

A source with knowledge of the talks added in comments to AFP today that discussions were “focused on building on the progress of the extended humanitarian pause agreement and to initiate further discussions about the next phase of a potential deal.”

Hostages, prisoners released

After a 48-hour extension of an initial four-day truce, a new group of 12 hostages – 10 Israelis plus two Thais – was freed from Gaza yesterday, with 30 Palestinians released by Israel.

An AFP journalist saw masked and armed fighters from the Palestinian groups Hamas and the Islamic Jihad hand over hostages to Red Cross officials in Rafah, near the border with Egypt.

The Israeli hostages freed were all women, including 17-year-old Mia Leimberg, who returned to Israel with her mother and aunt.

The grandmother of 12-year-old Eitan Yahalomi, who was released on Monday, said the boy had been held in solitary confinement for 16 days.

“The days that he was alone were horrible,” Esther Yaeli told Israeli news website Walla. “Now Eitan appears very withdrawn.”

Hamas has released one Russian-Israeli, 20 Thais, and one Filipino outside the scope of the truce agreement.

Thailand’s foreign ministry said 17 of the released Thai hostages would arrive back in the kingdom tomorrow. It said about 13 Thais remained among the hostages held in Gaza.

Among the Palestinian prisoners freed in yesterday’s exchange was 14-year-old Ahmad Salaima who returned to his home in east Jerusalem to cheers and hugs from relatives.

“When Ahmad was in prison, we couldn’t visit him, even though he’s the youngest Palestinian prisoner,” his father Nayef said.

Israel’s government has received a list of the new hostages to be freed today, Israeli media reported. There was no official confirmation.

Some of the hostages in Gaza are in the hands of another Palestinian group, Islamic Jihad.

Its spokesman Musab al-Breim told AFP yesterday in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis 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”.

‘Risk of famine’

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

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.

The World Food Programme has warned that Gaza’s population faced a “high risk of famine if WFP is not able to provide continued access to food.”

Conditions in the territory were “catastrophic”, the agency’s Middle East director Corinne Fleischer said.

A spokesman for the United Nations children’s agency Unicef said aid entering Gaza under the truce deal was “not even enough for triage”, or emergency care.

Gazans ‘fed up’

Yesterday, Hamas and Israel traded accusations of truce violations, but Qatar’s Ansari said the “minimal breaches” did not “harm the essence of the agreement”.

Israel has made clear it sees the truce as an interlude to ensure hostage releases before its war to destroy Hamas continues.

Israel’s allies have been wary of calling for a complete end to military operations designed to eliminate Hamas, but foreign ministers from the Group of Seven have urged a longer truce.

“We support the further extension of this pause and future pauses as needed to enable assistance to be scaled up, and to facilitate the release of all hostages,” they said.

Washington has warned Israel that any fresh offensive in southern Gaza must be “done in a way…not designed to produce significant further displacement,” a senior US official said.

An estimated 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza have been forced to leave their homes so far, more than half the territory’s population, according to the UN.

“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.

“For two days I couldn’t eat, then I told myself that I had to continue living,” she told AFP. “My house is destroyed but my children are alive, so we will rebuild.”

The truce in Gaza has not ended violence in the occupied West Bank, where two Palestinian teenagers were killed in clashes with Israeli troops yesterday, the Palestinian health ministry said.

Since the Oct 7 attacks, more than 230 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank by Israeli soldiers or settlers, according to the ministry. - FMT

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