GAZA STRIP: A new group of Israeli hostages are due to be freed in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, as Israel and Hamas accused each other of violating an extended truce in their devastating seven-week war.
The temporary cessation of hostilities and releases of captives have been hailed as a glimpse of hope in the conflict sparked by deadly Hamas attacks that prompted an Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip.
As a two-day extension to the pause in hostilities began, US and Israeli intelligence chiefs were in Doha, capital of truce mediator Qatar, to discuss the “next phase” of the deal, fueling hopes for a prolonged halt to the violence.
Israel and Hamas are under international pressure not to return to all-out fighting when the latest truce ends on Thursday, but instead to build on the prisoner swaps to find a solution to the conflict.
A source close to Hamas said that 10 hostages held in Gaza would be freed in return for 30 prisoners released from Israeli prisons on Tuesday.
In addition to those releases, “some foreign workers held in Gaza” will also be freed, the source said.
Israeli leaders, however, have so far insisted that their campaign to crush Hamas will resume once they have received as many hostages as possible in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.
And on Tuesday, each side accused the other of breaking the truce agreement.
Palestinian movements denounced what they dubbed “truce violations by the occupier,” and a journalist saw an Israeli tank fire three times in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City as Palestinians attempted to make use of the lull to return to their homes.
The Israeli military described the shelling as “warning shots,” saying a tank fired as suspected militants approached army positions. At least one person was hurt, the reporter saw.
The Israeli military meanwhile alleged that three explosive devices were detonated near its forces in the northern Gaza strip, “violating the framework of the operational pause.”
The IDF said: “In one of the locations, terrorists also opened fire at the troops, who responded with fire. A number of soldiers were lightly injured during the incidents.
“In both incidents, the troops were located in positions as per the framework of the operational pause.”
Israel’s ground and air operation in the Gaza Strip has killed almost 15,000 people, mostly civilians, according to the territory’s Hamas government.
TV images show buildings several stories high flattened by the Israeli bombardments in the central Gaza Strip and residents walking through the rubble of ruined homes.
Israel has vowed to stick to its war aim of destroying Hamas and rescuing all 240 hostages.
Qatar’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed Al Ansari said that his government would use the extension to work for a “sustainable truce.”
The heads of the US and Israeli intelligence agencies were in Qatar to discuss the “next phase” of the Gaza deal, a source briefed on their visit said.
“The director of the CIA and the director of the Israeli National Intelligence Agency are in Doha to meet with the Qatari prime minister,” the source said, requesting anonymity.
The discussions, he said, aim “to build on the progress of the extended humanitarian pause agreement and to initiate further discussions about the next phase of a potential deal.”
The latest round of exchanges on Monday night brought the total number of people released under the truce to 50 Israeli hostages, and 150 Palestinian prisoners, all women and minors.
Another 19 hostages have been freed under separate deals, including Thai workers and a dual Russian-Israeli citizen.
Sharon Calderon, the aunt of 16-year-old Sahar and 12-year-old Erez who were released on Monday, called for their father Ofer to be freed also. Two other family members were killed on Oct. 7.
“We’ve got Erez and Sahar here and we’re very, very happy we got them home. We have to get Ofer and the rest of the kidnapped and bring them here … to be again a big happy family.”
Shortly after the arrival of the hostages was confirmed, Israel’s prison authority said 33 Palestinian inmates had been released.
In annexed East Jerusalem, Palestinian prisoner Muhammad Abu Al-Humus called his release “an indescribable joy” and kissed his mother’s hand as he entered his home.
“I’m very happy. I hope that others will soon be released — my friends, my cousins.”
Israel views the truce as a temporary measure to secure hostage releases and says it plans to continue its military offensive.
The government has agreed a 30.3 billion shekel ($8.2 billion) war budget that will now go to parliament.
But Israel faces increasing pressure for a more lasting ceasefire and the ramp-up of humanitarian aid to Gaza, where an estimated 1.7 million people have been displaced, according to the UN.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to pay his third wartime visit to the Middle East this week, meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.
US officials said the United States was sending three military aircraft to Egypt from Tuesday to bring medicine, food and “winter items” for Gaza via northern Egypt.
In Gaza, the Hamas-run Health Ministry said no fuel had arrived for generators at hospitals in the territory’s north, despite the truce.
The World Food Programme said it had delivered food to 121,161 people in Gaza since Friday, when the truce began, but that a high risk of famine remained. “What we see is catastrophic,” said WFP’s director for the Middle East, Corinne Fleischer.
The UN children’s agency UNICEF said aid flows into northern Gaza had increased since the truce began, but spokesman James Elder warned that given the destruction “all this aid is triage (minimum emergency care) … It’s not even enough for triage.”