DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Mediators were scrambling to extend an Israel-Hamas truce set to expire after daybreak Friday, as the two sides appeared to be struggling to agree on how to continue the daily exchanges of hostages held by Hamas for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel that have sustained the week-long pause in fighting.
Virtually all of those freed so far have been women and children, but with few such hostages remaining in Gaza reaching a deal on an extension could prove more challenging. Hamas, a militant group that has ruled Gaza for 16 years, is expected to set a higher price for the remaining hostages, especially Israeli soldiers. About 140 hostages remain in Gaza, with more than 100 having been freed as part of the truce.
Qatar and Egypt, which have played a key role as mediators, are seeking to prolong a truce by another two days. Israel has pledged to resume its blistering offensive, aimed at crushing Hamas, if the militants don’t offer what it views as a satisfactory list of captives to be freed in return for an extension.
Israel has vowed to resume the war once hostage releases end, but faces growing pressure from its main ally, the United States to do more to protect Palestinian civilians.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials on his third visit to the region since the start of the war two months ago, said he hoped the cease-fire could be extended and more hostages could be released.
Blinken also said that if Israel resumes the war and moves 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. He said Israeli leaders understood that ”the massive levels of civilian life and displacement scale we saw in the north must not be repeated in the south.”
International pressure has mounted to pause the war, triggered by Hamas’ deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel, as long as possible. Thousands of Palestinians in Gaza have been killed and more than three-quarters of the population of 2.3 million have been uprooted, after weeks of Israeli bombardment and a ground campaign, leading to a humanitarian crisis.
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.
Late Thursday and into Friday, more Israeli and foreign hostages were swapped for Palestinian.
Hamas freed eight hostages, who were handed to the Red Cross in Gaza and then taken to Israel for medical evaluations and a reunion with their families. Among those freed were two women handed over in Gaza City, an area where Israeli troops have been in control for weeks and have been searching for hostages.
Early Friday, 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 freed detainees were hugged as the crowd chanted, “God is great.”
During the truce, at least 10 Israelis a day, along with other nationals, had been freed by Hamas in return for Israel releasing at least 30 Palestinian prisoners. Asked why Hamas released fewer than 10 hostages on Thursday, the military’s chief spokesman, Rear Adm. 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.”
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, even as the Biden administration has urged it to operate with far greater precision if it does so.
A total of 83 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.
It’s not clear how many of the remaining women hostages are 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.
Before the cease-fire, Hamas released four hostages, and the Israeli army rescued one. Two others were found dead in Gaza.
The 240 Palestinians released so far under the cease-fire 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.
The Palestinians released early Friday included 22 teenagers and eight Israeli Palestinian women who were arrested since the war started, most of them for pro-Palestinian social media posts, according to the Palestinian Prisoners Club, which advocates for prisoners. Israeli authorities have carried out a crackdown on such posts, arresting more than 270 Palestinian citizens on allegations of inciting violence, according to rights groups.
The truce arrangements have largely held for the past week, and even a deadly Hamas attack in Jerusalem early Thursday did not derail the subsequent swap of hostages for prisoners.
In the attack, two 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. A fourth Israeli was shot by security forces who mistook him for an assailant, and died of his wounds later Thursday.
The attackers, brothers from a neighborhood in annexed east Jerusalem, were killed. After the attack, six other members of the family were detained, and the government ordered their house demolished. 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.”
Early Friday morning, the Israeli military reported intercepting a rocket fired from Gaza. Before the cease-fire, Hamas and other militant groups at times fired dozens to hundreds of rockets per day at Israel.
The war was triggered by an Oct. 7 attack in which Hamas and other Palestinian militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took around 240 people captive. Authorities have only provided approximate figures.
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.
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.
Palestinians in Gaza have called for a permanent end to the war, saying the temporary truces don’t resolve the humanitarian catastrophe in the territory. Over 1.8 million people have fled their homes, with more than 1 million sheltering in U.N. schools and struggling to find basic items including cooking gas and flour.
Jeffery reported from Cairo, and Lidman from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Tel Aviv, Israel; Josef Federman in Jerusalem; Najib Jobain in Rafah, Gaza Strip; and Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut contributed.
Full AP coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war
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