JERUSALEM: Israel and Hamas agreed at the last minute Thursday to extend their ceasefire in Gaza by another day. But any further renewal of the deal that has seen dozens of hostages and prisoners released could prove more challenging since Hamas is expected to demand greater concessions for many of the remaining captives.
As word of the extension came, 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 police.
The two attackers, brothers from a Palestinian neighborhood in annexed east Jerusalem, were killed. Hamas said they were members of its armed wing and celebrated the assault, but called it “a natural response” to Israel’s actions in Gaza and elsewhere. It was unclear if the attack had been ordered by Hamas’ leaders or if it would have an impact on the truce.
International pressure has mounted for the cease-fire to continue as long as possible after nearly eight weeks of Israeli bombardment and a ground campaign in Gaza that have killed thousands of Palestinians, uprooted more than three-quarters of the population of 2.3 million and led to a humanitarian crisis.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is on his third visit to the region since the start of the war, said “my heart goes out” to the victims of the Jerusalem attack. Blinken is expected to press for further extensions of the truce and the release of more hostages.
“This process is producing results. It’s important, and we hope that it can continue,” he said.
The talks appear to be growing tougher, however, with Hamas having already freed most of the women and children kidnapped during the deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel that triggered the war. The militants are expected to make greater demands in return for freeing men and soldiers.
Qatar, which has played a key role in mediating with Hamas, announced that the truce was being extended Thursday. In the past, Hamas has released at least 10 Israeli hostages per day in exchange for Israel’s release of at least 30 Palestinian prisoners.
The announcement followed a last-minute standoff, with Hamas saying Israel had rejected a proposed list that included seven living captives and the remains of three who the group said were killed in Israeli airstrikes. Israel later said Hamas submitted an improved list, but gave no details.
Israel says it will maintain the truce until Hamas stops releasing captives, at which point it will resume military operations aimed at eliminating the group. The Biden administration has told Israel that it must operate with far greater precision if it expands the ground offensive to the south, where many Palestinians have sought refuge.
Increasingly tense hostage talks
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin 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 bolt his coalition if he is seen as making too many concessions.
The initial truce — which began Friday and has now been extended twice — called for the release of women and children. Israeli officials say Gaza militants still hold around 30 women and children, who would all be released in a few days if the swaps continue at the current rate.
It’s not clear how many of the women might be soldiers. For soldiers and the men still in captivity, Hamas is expected to push for comparable releases of Palestinian men or prominent detainees, a deal Israel may resist.
Israel says around 125 men are still held hostage, including several dozen soldiers. Thus far, Hamas has released some men — mostly Thai laborers.
An Israeli official involved in hostage negotiations said talks on a further extension for the release of civilian men and soldiers were still preliminary, and that a deal would not be considered until all the women and children are out. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because talks were ongoing.
So far, most Palestinians released have been teenagers accused of throwing stones and firebombs during confrontations with Israeli forces. Several were women convicted by Israeli military courts of attempting to attack soldiers. Palestinians have celebrated the release of people they see as having resisted Israel’s decadeslong military occupation of lands they want for a future state.
With Wednesday’s releases, a total of 73 Israelis, including dual nationals, have been freed during the six-day truce, most of whom appear physically well but shaken. Another 24 hostages — 23 Thais and one Filipino — have also been released.
Before the cease-fire, Hamas released four hostages, and the Israeli army rescued one. Two others were found dead in Gaza. On Thursday, the military confirmed the death of Ofir Tzarfati, who was believed to be among the hostages, without providing any further details. Israeli media say the 27-year-old attended a music festival where at least 360 people were killed and several others were kidnapped on Oct. 7.
Hamas and other Palestinian militants killed over 1,200 people — mostly civilians — in their wide-ranging attack across southern Israel that day and captured around 240. Authorities have only ever provided approximate figures.
Israel’s bombardment and ground 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.
In Gaza an anxious respite
During the pause in fighting, Palestinians in Gaza have been consumed by the search for aid and horror at the extent of destruction.
Residents described entire residential blocks as leveled in Gaza City and surrounding areas in the north. The smell of decomposing bodies trapped under collapsed buildings fills the air, said Mohmmed Mattar, a 29-year-old resident of the city who along with other volunteers searched for the dead.
In the south, the truce has allowed more aid to be delivered from Egypt, up to 200 trucks a day. But humanitarian officials say it is not enough, given that most now depend on outside aid. Over 1 million displaced people have sought refuge in UN-run shelters, with many forced to sleep outside in cold, rainy weather because of overcrowding.
At a distribution center in Rafah, large crowds line up daily for bags of flour but supplies run out quickly.
“Every day, we come here,” said one woman in line, Nawal Abu Namous. “We spend money on transportation to get here, just to go home with nothing.”