Hamas frees eight hostages to Israel as talks seek to extend Gaza truce

Hostages who were abducted by Hamas gunmen during the October 7 attack on Israel are handed over by Hamas militants to the International Red Cross. (Reuters)
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Updated 01 December 2023
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Hamas frees eight hostages to Israel as talks seek to extend Gaza truce

  • Hamas is expected to demand greater concessions for many of the remaining captives
  • Blinken is expected to press for further extensions of the truce and the release of more hostages

GAZA/TEL AVIV: Hamas on Thursday released eight Israeli hostages in Gaza under a last-minute extension of a truce deal and Israel freed 30 Palestinian prisoners as negotiators sought to renew the pause in fighting again.
Israel identified two women who were released first on Thursday as 21-year-old Mia Schem, among those seized at a dance party that Hamas militants attacked on Oct. 7, and 40-year-old Amit Soussana.
Photos released by the Israeli prime minister’s office showed Schem, who also holds French nationality, embracing her mother and brother after they were reunited at Hatzerim military base in Israel.
The Palestinian militant group Hamas then freed six more hostages, transferring them to the Red Cross, the Israeli military said. Four were women aged 29 to 41 including one Mexican-Israeli dual national, according to official information.
Television images showed some of the women walking past ambulances once they reached Israeli territory.
The other two newly released hostages were a brother and sister, Belal and Aisha Al-Ziadna, aged 18 and 17 respectively, according to the Israeli prime minister’s office. They are Bedouin Arab citizens of Israel and among four members of their family taken hostage while they were milking cows on a farm.
Wahid Alhuzail, who chairs a group for Bedouins kidnapped on Oct. 7, said he was happy they were freed. “But it’s not completely fulfilling. We want everyone to come home and for nobody to be stuck in the hands of the terror organization Hamas,” he told Reuters.
As part of the agreement, 30 Palestinians were released from jails, the Israeli prison service said.
Israel has sworn to annihilate Hamas, which rules Gaza, in response to the Oct. 7 rampage by the militant group, when Israel says gunmen killed 1,200 people and took 240 hostages.
Until the truce, Israel bombarded the territory for seven weeks. Palestinian health authorities deemed reliable by the United Nations say more than 15,000 Gazans have been confirmed killed.
While Israel required Hamas to release 10 hostages daily in to continue the Qatari-mediated truce, a Qatari foreign ministry spokesperson said there would be no more hostages freed on Thursday beyond the eight.
Israeli officials accepted eight rather than 10 hostages because Hamas on Wednesday released two extra hostages, the Qatari spokesperson said. They were Israeli-Russian women whose liberty the Palestinian faction described as a goodwill gesture to Moscow.
Israel and Hamas agreed to add a seventh day of a humanitarian pause on Thursday, while Egyptian and Qatari mediators were working to negotiate a further extension of two days, Egypt’s official state media agency said.
With fewer Israeli women and children left in captivity, extending the truce could require setting new terms for the release of Israeli men, including soldiers. Thus far during the truce, Palestinian militants have freed 105 hostages and Israel has released 240 Palestinian prisoners.
The truce has allowed some humanitarian aid into Gaza after much of the coastal territory of 2.3 million people was reduced to wasteland in the Israeli assault.
More fuel and 56 trucks of humanitarian supplies entered Gaza on Thursday, Israel’s defense ministry and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society said.
But deliveries of food, water, medical supplies and fuel remain far below what is needed, aid workers say. At an emergency meeting in Amman, Jordan’s King Abdullah on Thursday urged UN officials and international groups to pressure Israel to allow more aid into the beleaguered enclave, according to delegates.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in Israel during his third visit to the Middle East since the war began, agreed that the flow of aid into Gaza was not sufficient.
Blinken said he told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel must do more to protect civilians before any further military operations, and Netanyahu and his cabinet supported this approach.
“Israel has ... one of the most sophisticated militaries in the world. It is capable of neutralizing the threat posed by Hamas while minimizing harm to innocent men, women and children. And it has an obligation to do so,” Blinken told reporters in Tel Aviv.
Separately, the armed wing of Hamas claimed responsibility for a deadly shooting in Jerusalem, which Israel called further proof of the need to destroy the militants, although there were no signs of this scuppering the truce or release of hostages.
Shortly after the last-minute extension of the truce, two Palestinian attackers opened fire at a bus stop during morning rush hour at the entrance to Jerusalem, killing at least four people. Both attackers were “neutralized,” police said.
“This event proves again how we must not show weakness, that we must speak to Hamas only through (rifle) scopes, only through war,” said hard-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir at the site of the attack.
Hamas said the attackers were its members, and its armed wing claimed responsibility for the attack in response “to the occupation’s crimes of killing children and women in Gaza.”
But neither side appeared to treat the attack as an explicit renunciation of the truce. A Palestinian official familiar with the truce talks said its terms did not apply to what he characterised as responses to Israeli attacks in the West Bank and Jerusalem.


Scores killed overnight in Gaza amid negotiations in Paris for truce

Updated 24 February 2024
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Scores killed overnight in Gaza amid negotiations in Paris for truce

  • UN aid body for Palestinians, UNWRA, says Gazans are ‘in extreme peril while the world watches on’
  • The Paris talks come after plan for post-war Gaza by Israeli prime minister drew criticism from the US

Gaza Strip: More than 100 people were reported killed early Saturday in overnight strikes across Gaza, as Israel’s spy chief was in Paris for talks seeking to “unblock” progress toward a truce and the return of hostages held by Palestinian militants.
The Paris negotiations come after a plan for a post-war Gaza unveiled by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew criticism from key ally the United States and was rejected by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas on Friday.
They also come as fears for civilians in the territory are deepening, with the UN warning of the growing risk of famine and its main aid body for Palestinians, UNWRA, saying early Saturday that Gazans were “in extreme peril while the world watches on.”
AFP footage showed distraught Gazans queuing for food in the territory’s devastated north on Friday and staging a protest decrying their living conditions.
“Look, we are fighting each other over rice,” said Jabalia resident Ahmad Atef Safi. “Where are we supposed to go?“
“We have no water, no flour and we are very tired because of hunger. Our backs and eyes hurt because of fire and smoke,” fellow Jabalia resident Oum Wajdi Salha told AFP.
“We can’t stand on our feet because of hunger and lack of food.”
In a Friday night statement on social media platform X, the UN humanitarian agency OCHA said: “Without adequate food and water supplies, as well as health and nutrition services, the elevated risk of famine in #Gaza is projected to increase.”
The war started after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.
Hamas militants also took hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 29,514 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by Gaza’s health ministry on Friday.
An Israeli air strike Friday destroyed the Gaza home of well-known Palestinian comedian Mahmoud Zuaiter, killing at least 23 people and injuring dozens more, the health ministry said.
The ministry announced early Saturday that at least 103 more people were killed in strikes overnight, with many others believed to be missing under rubble.
Netanyahu on Thursday night presented his war cabinet with a plan for the post-war Gaza Strip that envisages civil affairs being run by Palestinian officials without links to Hamas.
The plan stipulates that, even after the war, the Israeli army would have “indefinite freedom” to operate throughout Gaza to prevent any resurgence of terror activity, according to the proposals.
It also states that Israel will move ahead with a plan, already under way, to establish a security buffer zone inside Gaza along the territory’s border.
The plan drew criticism from the United States, with National Security Council spokesman John Kirby saying Friday that Washington had been “consistently clear with our Israeli counterparts” about what was needed in post-war Gaza.
“The Palestinian people should have a voice and a vote... through a revitalized Palestinian Authority,” he said, adding the United States also did not “believe in a reduction of the size of Gaza.”
Asked about the plan during a visit to Argentina, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he would “reserve judgment” until seeing all the details, but that Washington was against any “reoccupation” of Gaza after the war.
Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan dismissed Netanyahu’s plan as unworkable.
“When it comes to the day after in the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu is presenting ideas which he knows fully well will never succeed,” Hamdan told reporters in Beirut.
Meanwhile, an Israeli delegation led by David Barnea, head of the Mossad intelligence agency, was in Paris on Saturday for a fresh push toward a deal to return the remaining hostages.
Barnea will be joined by his counterpart at the domestic Shin Bet security agency, Ronen Bar, Israeli media reported.
The United States, Egypt and Qatar have all been deeply involved in past negotiations aimed at securing a truce and prisoner-hostage exchanges.
Pressure has been mounting on Netanyahu’s government to negotiate a ceasefire and secure the hostages’ release after more than four months of war, with a group representing the captives’ families planning what it billed as a “huge rally” to coincide with the Paris talks on Saturday night to demand swifter action.
The United States, Egypt and Qatar have all been deeply involved in past negotiations aimed at securing a truce and prisoner-hostage exchanges.
White House envoy Brett McGurk held talks this week with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv, after speaking to other mediators in Cairo who had met Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh.
A Hamas source said the new plan proposes a six-week pause in the conflict and the release of between 200 and 300 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for 35 to 40 hostages being held by Hamas.
Barnea and his US counterpart from the CIA helped broker a week-long truce in November that saw the release of 80 Israeli hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
US National Security Council spokesman Kirby had told journalists earlier that so far the discussions were “going well,” while Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz spoke of “the first signs that indicate the possibility of progress.”


Strikes on Gaza kill scores as Paris hosts new truce talks

Updated 24 February 2024
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Strikes on Gaza kill scores as Paris hosts new truce talks

  • Negotiations come after a plan for a post-war Gaza unveiled by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew criticism from key ally US

GAZA STRIP, Palestinian Territories: Overnight strikes on Gaza killed dozens, the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry said Saturday, as Israel’s spy chief joined talks in Paris seeking to unblock negotiations on a truce.

The negotiations come after a plan for a post-war Gaza unveiled by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew criticism from key ally the United States, and was rejected by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank.

They also come alongside deepening fears for Gaza’s civilians. The United Nations’ main aid body for Palestinians, UNWRA, said Gazans were “in extreme peril while the world watches.”

Hamas said on Saturday morning that Israeli forces had launched more than 70 strikes on civilian homes in Deir Al-Balah, Khan Yunis and Rafah among other locations over the previous 24 hours. The health ministry said at least 92 people were killed.

The Palestinian Islamist movement that has ruled Gaza since 2007 also said fighting was raging in the northern district of Zeitun.

AFPTV footage showed distraught Gazans queueing on Friday for food in Jabalia, also in the besieged Palestinian territory’s devastated north, and protesting over dire living conditions.

“We have no water, no flour and we are very tired because of hunger. Our backs and eyes hurt because of fire and smoke,” said one of them, Oum Wajdi Salha.

Gaza’s health ministry said a two-month-old baby identified as Mahmud Fatuh had died of “malnutrition.”

The UN humanitarian agency OCHA warned that “the elevated risk of famine in Gaza is projected to increase” without enough food and water, as well as health services.

The war began after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack, which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

Hamas militants also took hostages, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 29,606 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by Gaza’s health ministry.

An Israeli air strike Friday destroyed the Gaza home of well-known Palestinian comedian Mahmoud Zuaiter, killing at least 23 people and wounding dozens more, the health ministry said.

Netanyahu this week unveiled a plan for post-war Gaza that envisages civil affairs being run by Palestinian officials without links to Hamas.

The plan says that, even after the conflict, Israel’s army would have “indefinite freedom” to operate throughout Gaza to prevent any resurgence of terror activity, according to the proposals.

It also says Israel will move ahead with a plan, already underway, to establish a security buffer zone inside Gaza along the territory’s border.

A senior Hamas official dismissed the plan as unworkable.

“When it comes to the day after in the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu is presenting ideas which he knows fully well will never succeed,” Osama Hamdan told reporters in Beirut.

The plan also drew criticism from the United States. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Washington had been “consistently clear with our Israeli counterparts” about what was needed in post-war Gaza.

“The Palestinian people should have a voice and a vote... through a revitalized Palestinian Authority,” he said, adding the United States also did not “believe in a reduction of the size of Gaza.”

An Israeli delegation led by Mossad intelligence agency chief David Barnea was in Paris on Saturday for a fresh push toward a deal to return the remaining hostages.

Barnea would be joined by his counterpart at the domestic Shin Bet security agency, Ronen Bar, Israeli media reported.

The United States, Egypt and Qatar have all been deeply involved in past negotiations aimed at securing a truce and prisoner-hostage exchanges.

Pressure has been mounting on Netanyahu’s government to negotiate a ceasefire and secure the hostages’ release after more than four months of war. A group representing the captives’ families planned what it billed as a “huge rally” to demand swifter action, coinciding with the Paris talks on Saturday night.

White House envoy Brett McGurk held talks this week with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv, after speaking to other mediators in Cairo who had met Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh.

A Hamas source said the new plan proposes a six-week pause in the conflict and the release of between 200 and 300 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for 35 to 40 hostages being held by Hamas.

Barnea and his US counterpart from the CIA helped broker a week-long truce in November that saw the release of 80 Israeli hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.

US National Security Council spokesman Kirby had said earlier that the discussions were “going well,” while Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz spoke of “the first signs that indicate the possibility of progress.”


US downs three Houthi drones, strikes anti-ship missiles

Updated 24 February 2024
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US downs three Houthi drones, strikes anti-ship missiles

  • Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis have been targeting shipping for months and their attacks have persisted despite repeated American and British strikes

Washington: American forces shot down three attack drones near commercial ships in the Red Sea Friday and destroyed seven anti-ship cruise missiles positioned on land, the US military said.
Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis have been targeting shipping for months and their attacks have persisted despite repeated American and British strikes aimed at degrading the rebels’ ability to threaten a vital global trade route.
Early on Friday, US forces “shot down three Houthi one-way attack (drones) near several commercial ships operating in the Red Sea. There was no damage to any ships,” the Central Command (CENTCOM) said on social media.
In a statement later in the day, CENTCOM said US forces destroyed “seven Iranian-backed Houthi mobile anti-ship cruise missiles that were prepared to launch toward the Red Sea.”
It said those strikes , carried out between 12:30 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. Sanaa time, were made in self-defense.
“CENTCOM forces identified these missiles in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen and determined that they presented an imminent threat to merchant vessels and to the US Navy ships in the region,” it said in a statement.
The day prior, American forces struck four Houthi drones as well as two anti-ship cruise missiles, CENTCOM said, adding that the weapons “were prepared to launch from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen toward the Red Sea.”
The Houthis began attacking Red Sea shipping in November, saying they were hitting Israel-linked vessels in support of Palestinians in Gaza, which has been ravaged by the Israel-Hamas war.
US and UK forces responded with strikes against the Houthis, who have since declared American and British interests to be legitimate targets as well.
Anger over Israel’s devastating campaign in Gaza — which began after an unprecedented Hamas attack on October 7 — has grown across the Middle East, stoking violence involving Iran-backed groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.


US warns of environmental disaster from cargo ship hit by Houthi rebels

Updated 24 February 2024
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US warns of environmental disaster from cargo ship hit by Houthi rebels

  • The Belize-flagged Rubymar was damaged Sunday by a missile strike claimed by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels
  • It was transporting 41,000 tons of fertilizer when it was attacked, says Roy Khoury, the CEO of Blue Fleet CEO

WASHINGTON: A cargo ship abandoned in the Gulf of Aden after an attack by Yemeni rebels is taking on water and has left a huge oil slick, in an environmental disaster that US Central Command said Friday could get worse.

Rubymar, a Belize-flagged, British-registered and Lebanese-operated cargo ship carrying combustible fertilizer, was damaged in a Sunday missile strike claimed by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
Its crew was evacuated to Djibouti after one missile hit the side of the ship, causing water to enter the engine room and its stern to sag, said its operator, the Blue Fleet Group.
A second missile hit the vessel’s deck without causing major damage, Blue Fleet CEO Roy Khoury told AFP.
CENTCOM said the ship is anchored but slowly taking on water and has left an 18 mile oil slick.
“The M/V Rubymar was transporting over 41,000 tons of fertilizer when it was attacked, which could spill into the Red Sea and worsen this environmental disaster,” it said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.
The ship’s operator said Thursday the ship could be towed to Djibouti this week.
Khoury said the ship was still afloat and shared an image captured on Wednesday that showed its stern low in the water.
When asked about the possibility of it sinking, Khoury had said there was “no risk for now, but always a possibility.”
The attack on the Rubymar represents the most significant damage yet to be inflicted on a commercial ship since the Houthis started firing on vessels in November — a campaign they say is in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza during the Israel-Hamas war.
The Houthi attacks have prompted some shipping companies to detour around southern Africa to avoid the Red Sea, which normally carries about 12 percent of global maritime trade.
The UN Conference on Trade and Development warned late last month that the volume of commercial traffic passing through the Suez Canal had fallen more than 40 percent in the previous two months.
 


UN rights chief deplores ‘entrenched impunity’ in Gaza war

Updated 24 February 2024
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UN rights chief deplores ‘entrenched impunity’ in Gaza war

  • UN agency for Palestinian refugees at ‘breaking point,’ deplores chief

GENEVA, NEW YORK: The UN human rights chief said on Friday that perpetrators of gross human rights violations in the conflict between Israel and Hamas must be held accountable.

“The entrenched impunity that OHCHR — the UN rights agency — has reported on for many years cannot persist,” High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk said in a report on the situation in Gaza and in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
He said that this impunity had contributed to violations that could amount to international crimes.
Turk urged all parties to the conflict to “put an end to impunity and conduct prompt, independent, impartial, thorough, effective and transparent investigations” into alleged crimes under international law. He also called on them to implement a ceasefire on human rights and humanitarian grounds, to ensure full respect for international law, and to ensure accountability for violations and abuses.

FASTFACT

‘The entrenched impunity that OHCHR — the UN rights agency — has reported on for many years cannot persist,’ High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk said in a report on the situation in Gaza and in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Last month, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ordered Israel to prevent acts of genocide against Palestinians and do more to help civilians, although it stopped short of ordering a ceasefire as requested by South Africa, which brought the case.
In separate proceedings, South Africa on Tuesday urged the court to issue a non-binding legal opinion that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories is illegal, arguing it would help efforts to reach a settlement.
Separately, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees warned it has reached a critical juncture as it struggles to cope with the war in Gaza.
“It is with profound regret that I must now inform you that UNRWA has reached a breaking point,” chief Philippe Lazzarini said, as donors freeze funding, Israel exerts pressure to dismantle the agency and humanitarian needs soar.
“The Agency’s ability to fulfill the mandate given through General Assembly Resolution 302 is now seriously threatened,” he said in a letter to the assembly.
That is the resolution under which the agency was founded in 1949, following the creation of Israel. UNRWA employs some 30,000 people working in the occupied territories, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
Several countries — including the US, Britain, Germany and Japan — have suspended funding to UNRWA in response to Israeli allegations that some of its staff participated in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel.
In an interview published over the weekend Lazzarini said $438 million has been frozen — the equivalent of more than half of expected funding for 2024. He said Israel was waging a concerted effort to destroy UNRWA.
The UN fired the employees accused by Israel and has begun an internal probe of UNRWA.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has also tasked an independent panel with assessing whether UNRWA acts in a neutral fashion in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Lazzarini asserted that Israel has provided no evidence against the 12 former employees it accuses, but 16 countries have suspended funding anyway.
“I have cautioned donors and host countries that without new funding, UNRWA operations across the region will be severely compromised from March,” he said.
He added: “I fear we are on the edge of a monumental disaster with grave implications for regional peace, security and human rights.”
The war started after Hamas’s unprecedented Oct. 7 attack which resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians.
Hamas militants also took about 250 hostages — 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 30 presumed dead, according to Israel.
Israel’s retaliatory campaign has killed at least 29,410 people, mostly women and children, according to the latest count by Gaza’s Health Ministry.