JERUSALEM: Israel and Hamas have reached an agreement for a four-day halt to the devastating war in Gaza, accompanied by the release of dozens of hostages held by the militant group in return for Palestinians detained by Israel, mediators said on Wednesday.
The truce marks the biggest diplomatic breakthrough since Hamas’ October 7 rampage into southern Israel ignited a war that has devastated vast swaths of Gaza and raised fears of a wider conflict across the Middle East.
Qatar, which has played a key role in mediating with Hamas, announced the deal without saying when it would go into effect. Fifty hostages will be released in stages, in exchange for what Hamas said would be 150 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Both sides will release women and children first, and the supply of humanitarian aid flowing into the besieged territory will be ramped up, officials said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would resume the war after the truce and keep fighting “until we achieve all our goals,” including the defeat of Hamas.
Residents in Gaza City said the fighting there had intensified overnight into Wednesday, with gunfire, heavy artillery and airstrikes in central neighborhoods.
“They are mad. Apparently they want to advance before the truce,” said Nasser Al Sheikh, who is sheltering with relatives in the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood.
A DIPLOMATIC BREAKTHROUGH
The announcement capped weeks of indirect Qatari-led negotiations between Israel and Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seized Gaza from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007. The United States and Egypt were also involved in stop-and-go talks to free some of the roughly 240 hostages captured by Hamas and other militants during the October 7 raid.
President Joe Biden welcomed the deal, saying Netanyahu has committed to supporting an “extended pause” to make sure that the hostages are released and humanitarian aid can be sent to Gaza.
* At least 50 hostages — women and children — captured by Hamas militants will be released in exchange for 150 Palestinians — women and children — jailed in Israel.
* Every additional 10 hostages released will result in one additional day in the pause and the release of additional Palestinian prisoners.
* Hamas and allied groups captured around 240 hostages when gunmen rampaged through southern Israeli towns on October 7.
* 50 women and children would be released over four days at a rate of at least 10 per day. Beyond that, the truce could be extended as long as an additional 10 hostages were freed per day.
* Israel’s justice ministry published a list of 300 names of Palestinian prisoners who could be freed. Most of those on the list published Wednesday are teenagers arrested over the past year for relatively minor offenses, including throwing rocks or alleged incitement. None was convicted of murder, though some served sentences for attempted murder.
* The youngest detainee in Israel on the list is 14, and it also includes around 40 women. The detainees are to be released to their homes in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
* The official start time for the truce is expected to be announced within 24 hours, with the first hostages to go free on Thursday.
* Under Israeli law, the public has 24 hours to object to any release.
Qatar’s prime minister and top diplomat, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani, said he hoped the deal would eventually lead to a permanent ceasefire and “serious talks” on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel said that the truce would be extended an extra day for every additional 10 hostages released by Hamas. The International Committee of the Red Cross said it is standing by to assist any swap.
Israel’s Justice Ministry published a list of 300 detainees eligible for release as part of the deal, mainly teenagers arrested over the past year for rock-throwing and other minor offenses. Under Israeli law, the public has 24 hours to object to any release.
WILL THE WAR RESUME?
As the full extent of the devastation becomes known and as hostages are released, pressure could grow on Israel to end its war without achieving its goal of crushing Hamas. Even the US, Israel’s chief backer, has expressed concerns about the heavy toll on Gaza’s civilian population.
Despite the massive destruction across Gaza and the killing of thousands of Palestinian civilians, Hamas leader Yehya Sinwar will likely present the release of the prisoners — seen by most Palestinians as heroes resisting occupation — as a major achievement, and declare victory if the war ends without removing Hamas from power.
In a statement on Wednesday, Hamas said hundreds of trucks carrying humanitarian aid — including fuel — would be allowed to enter Gaza. It said Israeli aircraft would stop flying over southern Gaza for the duration of the four-day ceasefire and for six hours daily in the north.
The war erupted in early October, when several thousand Hamas militants broke through Israel’s formidable defenses and poured into the south, killing at least 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and capturing scores more. Israel responded with weeks of devastating airstrikes on Gaza, followed by a ground invasion.
More than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed during the Israeli offensive, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory , which says it is no longer able to keep count because of the collapse of the health sector in the north. It does not differentiate between civilians and militants, though some two-thirds of the dead have been identified as women and minors.
The invasion has caused vast destruction in northern Gaza, including Gaza City, displaced over 1.7 million people and caused severe shortages of food, medicine and other basics throughout the territory. Israel cut off all fuel imports at the start of the war, causing a territory-wide power blackout.
Israel has rejected growing international criticism and vowed to press ahead until it destroys Hamas’ military and governing capabilities, and all hostages are freed.
DEAL COULD DIVIDE ISRAELIS
The return of hostages could lift spirits in Israel, where the plight of the captives has gripped the country. Airwaves are filled with interviews with families of the hostages, who include babies and toddlers, women and children, and people in their 80s with health issues.
The families have become a powerful force in Israel, staging demonstrations and pressuring the government to bring home their loved ones. But they could also find themselves divided as some hostages are freed and others remain in Gaza. Soldiers are likely to be the last to be freed, and their families may press the government to extend the truce until they return home.
Ofri Bibas Levy, whose brother, sister-in-law and two nephews – aged 4 and 10 months – are among the captives, said the deal puts the families in an “inhumane” situation. Her brother, 34, is not expected to be among the first groups released.
“Who will be released, who won’t? Will the kids be freed? Will they be freed with their mothers or not?” she told The Associated Press before the deal was announced. “No matter which way it happens, there will still be families that will remain worried and sad and angry.”
PAUSE COULD HELP HAMAS REGROUP
The structure of the deal could limit Israel’s ability to press its offensive, even after the truce expires.
Any pause would give Hamas a chance to regroup after suffering heavy losses, especially if it drags things out with additional hostage releases. Israeli troops and tanks are expected to remain in place, despite the risks of being stationary behind enemy lines.
Israel claims to have killed thousands of Hamas fighters, though it has not presented evidence, and destroyed parts of the group’s tunnel system. But Israeli officials acknowledge much of Hamas’ infrastructure remains intact. The military says 68 soldiers have been killed in ground operations.
Some three-quarters of Gaza’s population has been uprooted from their homes, with most packing into overcrowded and unsanitary shelters.
Many, if not most, will be unable to return home because of the vast damage in the north and the continued presence of Israeli troops there. That could lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster as the cold, rainy winter sets in.
Iran-backed armed groups across the Middle East have been drawn into the war, with Lebanon’s Hezbollah trading fire with Israel on a daily basis along the border and Yemen’s Houthi rebels launching drones and missiles as well as seizing an Israeli-linked cargo ship.
Violence has also soared in the Israeli-occupied West Bank , where more than 200 Palestinians have been killed, mainly during gunbattles triggered by Israeli army raids.