At least eight Israeli hostages were released by Hamas in the Gaza Strip on Thursday in the seventh day of the temporary ceasefire negotiated between the two warring sides last week. There has been no official announcement of an extension of the uneasy truce for an eighth day, although some reports claim that both sides have agreed on the same, according to The Times of Israel.
In exchange for the eight hostages, Israel released 30 Palestinian prisoners in the wee hours of Friday as per the terms of the deal. The bus carrying the prisoners arrived in the city of Ramallah, where they were greeted by people holding green Hamas flags. The men were hugged and the crowd chanted, “God is great.”
About 140 hostages still remain in Gaza, with more than 100 having been freed as part of the truce. The truce was set to expire on Friday, but mediators are working on extending it by at least another day. There has been increasing international pressure for the truce to be extended to secure the release of as many hostages as possible from the Gaza Strip, nearly two months after a devastating war broke out when Hamas attacked Israel on October 7.
While over 1,200 people have been killed in Israel, the retaliatory action by Israeli forces killed thousands of Palestinians and uprooted the majority of the 2.3 million population of Gaza, escalating into a dire humanitarian crisis. Israel has vowed to resume the fighting after the truce period expires - appearing set on its goal to eliminate Hamas and end its 16-year rule in the Strip.
Antony Blinken in Israel
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is currently on his fourth visit to Israel since the war broke out, reiterated that his immediate focus was to work on an extend the temporary cessation of fighting to get more hostages out of Gaza. Notably, Qatar mediators are working in close cooperation with the US and Egypt to negotiate the pause and secure the prisoner exchange.
"The seventh day that hostages have been freed and are returning home to their families. The seventh day that significantly more humanitarian assistance is getting into the people of Gaza who need it. And the seventh day that civilians in Gaza have been able to move to safer areas," he added.
The top US diplomat also emphasised that the US has significantly increased humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian families in Gaza, and that the US will not stop working to get every hostage back home with their loved ones.
While maintaining that the aid provided by the US is not enough to meet the needs of the people, Blinken said, "Sustaining and increasing the flow of humanitarian aid, in particular fuel, restocking stores with commercial goods - these are vital to the lives and livelihoods and well-being of men, women, and children."
He also underscored that if Israel resumes fighting and moves toward 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, in his meeting with Israeli officials.
On Thursday, the uneasy pause between Israel and Hamas by extended again by a day after previously being stretched for two days on Monday. The four-day truce deal was struck last Friday and was expected to expire by Monday.
Negotiations with the two sides are getting more tense and tougher. The future of the truce now depends on the release of around 126 men Israel says are held captive, including several dozen soldiers. Hamas is expected to make higher demands such as the release of prominent Palestinian detainees.
At least 240 Palestinians have been released so far under the ceasefire, mostly 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.
Hamas earlier claimed that Israel refused to accept a proposed list that included seven living hostages and the remains of three who were claimed to have been killed in previous Israeli airstrikes. Israel says around 125 men are still held hostage by Hamas and has strongly resisted the release of convicted Palestinians.
So far, the truce survived a deadly shooting incident in Jerusalem on Thursday, where two Palestinian gunmen opened fire on civilians at a bus stop, killing three. A fourth Israeli was shot by security forces after they mistook him for an attacker, and succumbed to his wounds on late Thursday.
The attack was carried out by brothers from the occupied east Jerusalem and Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it as retaliation for the killing of women and children in Gaza and the occupied West Bank. Six members of the attackers' family have been arrested and their house has been ordered for demolition.
(with inputs from agencies)