Israel-Hamas truce nears deadline, Blinken seeks extension

Time ran down on international efforts to extend a six-day pause in fighting and an exchange of hostages held in Gaza for Palestinian prisoners

Reuters
Published : 30 Nov 2023, 04:17 AM
Updated : 30 Nov 2023, 04:17 AM

A truce between Israel and Hamas was set to expire on Thursday morning as time ran down on international efforts to extend a six-day pause in fighting and an exchange of hostages held in Gaza for Palestinian prisoners.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Tel Aviv early on Thursday, his third trip to the region since the Oct 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, and was set to meet Israeli leaders to discuss extending the temporary truce and boosting humanitarian aid into Gaza.

"Looking at the next couple of days, we'll be focused on ... doing what we can to extend the pause so that we continue to get more hostages out and more humanitarian assistance in," Blinken said at a stop in Brussels.

Citing Israeli officials, Israeli media reported the military would resume attacks on Gaza at 7 am (0500 GMT) if the government did not receive a list of hostages to be released that met its criteria by that time.

Israel, according to the reports, is demanding at least 10 hostages be released on Thursday, with women and children prioritised.

Hamas' armed wing told its fighters in the Gaza Strip to be ready to resume battles with Israel if the temporary truce is not renewed.

"The Al-Qassam Brigades asks its active forces to maintain high combat readiness in the last hours of the truce," the militant group said in a statement.

Fighters should "remain on such footing unless an official statement is issued confirming the extension of the truce," the statement added.

Two Palestinian officials earlier told Reuters that talks were continuing over a possible extension of the truce, but no agreement had yet been reached.

A Palestinian official said negotiators were hammering out whether Israeli men would be released on different terms than the exchange of three Palestinian detainees for each Israeli hostage that has applied to women and children.

Hamas released 16 more hostages on Wednesday, the final day of a two-day extension to the truce. Israel's prison service said it released 30 more Palestinians from its jails in a sixth round of swaps. The exchanges are a core component of the arrangement, which was initially set at four days.

The six-day truce has brought the first respite to Gaza in seven weeks. During that time, Israel bombarded the territory in response to a rampage by Hamas gunmen on Oct 7, when Israel says gunmen killed 1,200 people and took 240 hostages.

Israel has sworn to annihilate Hamas, which rules Gaza. Health authorities in Gaza say Israel's bombardment has so far killed more than 15,000 Palestinians.

RELEASE OF ALL HOSTAGES

US President Joe Biden was determined to secure the release of all hostages held by Hamas after American Liat Beinin was freed on Wednesday, the White House said in a statement.

The US is urging Israel to narrow the zone of combat and clarify where Palestinian civilians can seek safety during any Israeli operation in southern Gaza, US officials said on Wednesday, to prevent a repeat of the massive death toll from Israel's northern Gaza attacks.

Ninety-seven hostages have been freed since the start of the truce, according to a Reuters tally. The Israeli military says 145 hostages remain in Gaza.

On Wednesday night, two Russian citizens and four Thai citizens were released outside the framework of the agreement while the 10 Israeli citizens freed included five dual nationals, officials said. They were a Dutch dual citizen, who is also a minor, three German dual citizens and one US dual citizen.

The handover was overshadowed by an unconfirmed claim by Hamas that a family of Israeli hostages including the youngest hostage, 10-month-old Kfir Bibas, had been killed during earlier Israeli bombardment.

The ceasefire and release of hostages and prisoners was mediated by Qatar, another country pushing for an extended truce.

"Qatar remains hopeful that the progress made in recent days can be sustained, and a further extension to the humanitarian pause agreement can be reached," Majed Al-Ansari, spokesperson for Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement.

Jordan will host a conference attended by the main UN, regional and international relief agencies on Thursday to coordinate aid to Gaza, official media said.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned on Wednesday the Gaza Strip was in the midst of an "epic humanitarian catastrophe," and he and others called for a ceasefire to replace the temporary truce.

"Intense negotiations are taking place to prolong the truce – which we strongly welcome - but we believe we need a true humanitarian ceasefire," he told a meeting of the UN Security Council.

China called on the Security Council on Thursday to formulate a "concrete" timetable and roadmap for a two-state solution to achieve a "comprehensive, just and lasting" settlement of the Palestinian issue.