After threating to break the four-day truce in Gaza, Hamas on Sunday released 13 more Israeli hostages — children and teenagers aged between 4 and 17 and women — the Israeli army confirmed. Another Israeli citizen, who also holds a Russian passport, was released along with a further three Thai captives. The oldest hostage, 84-year-old Alma Avraham, was evacuated by helicopter to a hospital in serious condition, according to Israeli state television. As provided for in the agreement that came into force on Friday, Israel released 39 Palestinians held in Israeli jails, all of them minors, shortly afterward. The swap on the third day of the truce came amid renewed pressure from the main mediators in the ongoing war — the United States, Qatar, and Egypt — for the parties to negotiate an extension of the ceasefire.
Late in the day, Hamas said in a statement that it is seeking to extend the four-day truce to “secure the release of more Palestinian prisoners,” marking the first time the fundamentalist movement has expressed its willingness to accept such an extension. Hours earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Gaza for the first time in the seven-week war. In the Strip, Netanyahu told Israeli troops: “We will continue until the end, until victory. Nothing will stop us, and we are convinced that we have the power, the strength, the will and the determination to achieve all the war’s goals, and we will.” Netanyahu’s words do not suggest that the partially regained calm in the ravaged land of Gaza will last longer than the four days already agreed upon in the deal that provides for the exchange of 50 of the approximately 240 Israeli hostages for 150 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. Late Sunday, U.S. President Joe Biden held a telephone conversation with Netanyahu, who told him that when the current truce expires, the Israeli army will resume the military operation in Gaza “with full force.”
Gazans, of whom nearly 15,000 have been killed during the current war according to the Strip’s health authorities, are probably those most eager for an extension of this ephemeral truce, but the international allies of both sides in the conflict are also hoping for a prolongation of the casefire. Biden affirmed last week that Washington is working toward an extension of the cessation of hostilities. “From the moment Hamas kidnapped these people, I, along with my team, have worked around the clock to secure their release,” Biden said. " I have consistently pressed for a pause in the fighting for two reasons: to accelerate and expand the humanitarian assistance going into Gaza and, two, to facilitate the release of hostages […] This deal also is structured to allow a pause to continue for more than 50 hostages to be released. That’s our goal.” The U.S. president also reiterated Washington’s commitment to the two-state solution. “We need to renew our resolve to pursue this two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can one day live side by side in a two-state solution with equal measure of freedom and dignity. Two states for two peoples. And it’s more important now than ever.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to travel to Israel again in the coming days. On his last visit, on November 3, he again displayed the unwavering support of the Biden administration for Israel, but with a nuance that displayed the growing discomfort in Washington over death toll in Gaza: Blinken urged his Israeli counterpart to “do more to prevent civilian deaths.” At least 6,150 of those killed in Gaza are children. During that visit, according to the Israeli press, the groundwork was partly laid for a temporary truce in the fighting to allow for the release of hostages and the arrival of more humanitarian aid to the Strip. That outline is the one that was finally accepted by the parties and entered into force last Friday.
The Israeli press on Sunday took it for granted that Blinken will again address the issue of the captives in Israel, but it also assumed that the trip is aimed at convincing the Netanyahu government to extend the truce. The two issues are closely related. So far, the only concrete option for an extension offered by Netanyahu is to add one day to the ceasefire for every additional 10 hostages released by Hamas. Since the truce began, the Palestinian militia has released 58 hostages, 40 Israelis and the rest workers from Asian countries, while Israel has released 117 Palestinian prisoners.
“A positive response”
Egypt had displayed cautious optimism about the truce on Saturday. In a statement, a government spokesman said Cairo had received “positive signals” that the truce could be extended by “a day or two,” according to Reuters. An Egyptian security source went further on Sunday, telling the EFE news agency that the parties have given “a positive response” to a proposal by Egypt and Qatar to extend the truce for another four days, “under the same conditions.”
On Saturday, an official Qatari delegation arrived in Tel Aviv in what was billed as a surprise visit. Subsequently, Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed Al-Ansari told France 24: “We hope that after the four days we will be able to sign a second agreement extending the ceasefire.” At least part of the delegation visited Gaza on Sunday.
The cautious optimism expressed by Egypt and Qatar runs against repeated statements by Netanyahu and his defense minister, Yoav Gallant. The Israeli prime minister has stated that after the current four-day truce, the war will continue. According to the daily Haaretz, one of the issues that Blinken will discuss with Netanyahu is the intention of the Israeli government to extend its ground offensive to the southern region of Gaza, where most of the 2.3 million residents of the Strip are now concentrated after Israel ordered them to evacuate on October 12. This idea has been met with misgivings in Washington, which fears that the already huge death toll in Gaza will soar even higher if Israel takes its offensive to the south, which would further jeopardize Israel’s international standing and that of the U.S. as its main supporter.
Due to Washington’s support, international pressure on Israel to extend the truce remains far less relevant for the Netanyahu government than the pressure it faces at home, not only from the families of the hostages but also from a large part of the population. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated Saturday afternoon in Tel Aviv to show their support for the relatives, while thousands more in Jerusalem demanded the resignation of the prime minister.
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