Hamas yesterday released eight Israeli hostages in Gaza under a last-minute truce deal and Israel was expected to free 30 Palestinian prisoners as negotiators sought to extend a ceasefire again.
Two women hostages were released first. Hamas then freed a group of six more hostages, transferring them to the Red Cross, the Israeli military said. Television images showed some young women among the group walking towards ambulances once they reached Israeli territory.
The six freed hostages comprised four adults and two teenagers, who are both Bedouin Arab citizens of Israel, according to the Israeli prime minister’s office.
While Israel required Hamas to release 10 hostages daily to continue the truce, a Qatari foreign ministry spokesperson said only eight would be released last night while Israel would release 30 Palestinians.
Israeli officials had signalled openness to accepting eight rather than 10 hostages in the release roster. They said that Hamas on Wednesday had released 12 hostages considered Israeli including two Israeli-Russian women whose liberty the Palestinian faction described as a goodwill gesture to Moscow.
Those two women could be counted as part of yesterday’s batch, Israeli officials suggested. Hamas also released four Thai hostages on Wednesday.
Footage aired on Al Jazeera showed the first two women released being taken out of a white vehicle surrounded by armed Hamas fighters in Gaza City and met by Red Cross officials, amid a throng of onlookers.
Israel and Hamas agreed to extend their ceasefire for a seventh day, while mediators pressed on with talks to extend the truce further to free more hostages and let aid reach Gaza.
The truce has halted bombing and allowed some humanitarian aid into Gaza after much of the coastal territory of 2.3 million people was reduced to wasteland in an Israeli campaign in retaliation for a deadly rampage by Hamas on October 7.
The armed wing of Hamas claimed responsibility for a deadly shooting in Jerusalem, although there were no signs of this scuppering the Gaza truce or release of hostages.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in Israel during his third visit to the Middle East since the war began, said the truce was “producing results.” US officials said Blinken also told the Israelis to ensure the safety of Palestinian civilians once the war resumes.
Egypt’s state media body said Egyptian and Qatari mediators were working to negotiate a further extension of the truce for two days.
Before yesterday, Hamas had released 97 hostages during the truce: 70 Israeli women, teenagers and children, each freed in return for three Palestinian women and teenage detainees, plus 27 foreign hostages freed under parallel agreements with their governments. Israel had released 210 Palestinian prisoners.
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.
Shortly after the last-minute truce agreement, two Palestinian attackers opened fire at a bus stop during morning rush hour at the entrance to Jerusalem, killing at least three people. Both attackers were “neutralised”, police said.
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.
Israel has sworn to annihilate Hamas, which rules Gaza, in response to the October 7 rampage by the 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, around 40 per cent of them children. A further 6,500 are missing, many feared still buried under rubble.
Conditions in Gaza remain “catastrophic” and the population faces a “high risk of famine,” according to the World Food Programme. The truce has allowed some of the displaced to return to their homes, but for many there is little left.
“I discovered that my house had been completely destroyed – 27 years of my life to build it and everything is gone,” said Taghrid al-Najjar, 46, after returning to her home in southeastern Gaza.
The violence in Gaza has also raised tensions in the West Bank, where nearly 240 Palestinians have been killed by either Israeli soldiers or settlers since October 7, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
That figure exceeds the entire toll in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for all of last year when 235 people died, mostly Palestinians, a news agency tally showed.