Hamas eyes Gaza truce extension for more hostage releases
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 militant group said Wednesday, as mediators sought a lasting halt to the conflict.
A current truce is scheduled to expire early Thursday after a six-day pause in the 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 on Wednesday under the agreement, Qatari mediators said they were working for a "sustainable" ceasefire.
Hamas on Wednesday "informed the mediators that it is willing to extend the truce for four days," a source close to the militant 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 on Tuesday 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 on Wednesday 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 was freed from Gaza on Tuesday, with 30 Palestinians released by Israel.
An AFP journalist saw masked and armed fighters from the militant 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 three were all abducted from kibbutz Nir Yitzhak, and the teenager was seen after her release holding her dog Bella.
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 "Now Eitan appears very withdrawn."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 also released a Russian-Israeli, 20 Thais and one Filipino outside the scope of the agreement.
Thailand's foreign ministry said 17 of the released Thai hostages would arrive back in the kingdom on Thursday. It said about 13 Thais remained among the hostages held in Gaza.
Among the Palestinian prisoners freed in Tuesday's exchange was 14-year-old Ahmad Salaima who returned to his home in east Jerusalem to cheers and hugs from relatives.
"When Ahmed 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 Wednesday, Israeli media reported. There was no official confirmation.
- 'Risk of famine'
The truce agreement 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.
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 warned Tuesday 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 are "catastrophic," the agency's Middle East director Corinne Fleischer said.
A spokesman for the UN children's agency UNICEF said aid entering Gaza under the truce deal was "not even enough for triage," or emergency care.
- Gazans 'fed up' -
On Tuesday, 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 a brief interlude to ensure hostage releases before its war 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 in a statement Tuesday.
Washington has also 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 United Nations.
The truce in Gaza has not ended violence in the occupied West Bank, where two Palestinian teenagers were killed in clashes with Israeli troops on Tuesday, the Palestinian health ministry said.
Since the October 7 attacks, more than 230 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank by Israeli soldiers or settlers, according to the ministry.
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