Hamas eyes Gaza truce extension for more hostage releases
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Hamas is willing to extend a truce for four days and release more Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, a source close to the militant group said Wednesday, as mediators sought a lasting halt to the conflict.
A current truce is scheduled to expire early Thursday after a six-day pause in a conflict sparked by deadly Hamas attacks that prompted a devastating Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip, reports BSS/AFP.
With 60 Israeli hostages and 180 Palestinian prisoners already released and more set to walk free on Wednesday under the agreement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to travel to Israel later Wednesday to push for an extension of the pause in fighting.
Hamas earlier "informed the mediators that it is willing to extend the truce for four days," a source close to the militant group told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Under that arrangement, "the movement would be able to release Israeli prisoners that it, other resistance movements and other parties hold during this period, according to the terms of the existing truce," the source added.
Speaking after a NATO meeting in Brussels, Blinken said he would be "focused on doing what we can to extend the pause so that we continue to get more hostages out and more humanitarian assistance in."
With tensions high despite the truce, the Palestinian health ministry in the occupied West Bank said an eight-year-old boy and a teenager were shot and killed by the Israeli army on Wednesday in the territory.
The Israeli army said it was "verifying" the information.
Violence has flared in the West Bank since the conflict erupted, with nearly 240 Palestinians killed there by Israeli soldiers or settlers, according to the ministry.
- Hostages, prisoners released -
After a 48-hour extension of an initial four-day truce, a new group of 12 hostages -- 10 Israelis plus two Thais -- was freed from Gaza on Tuesday, with 30 Palestinians released by Israel.
An AFP journalist saw masked and armed fighters from the militant groups Hamas and the Islamic Jihad hand over hostages to Red Cross officials in Rafah, near the border with Egypt.
The Israeli hostages freed were all women, including 17-year-old Mia
Leimberg, who returned to Israel with her mother and aunt.
Hamas has released more than 20 other hostages outside the scope of the truce agreement, mostly Thais.
Thailand's foreign ministry said 17 of the released Thai hostages would arrive back in the kingdom on Thursday. It said about 13 Thais remained among the hostages held in Gaza.
Among the Palestinian prisoners freed in Tuesday's exchange was 14-year-old Ahmad Salaima who returned to his home in annexed east Jerusalem to cheers and hugs from relatives.
Israel's government has received a list of the new hostages to be freed Wednesday, Israeli media reported. There was no official confirmation.
Some of the hostages in Gaza are in the hands of another Palestinian militant group, Islamic Jihad.
Its spokesman Musab al-Breim told AFP on Tuesday in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis that "the war is now continuing in indirect negotiations with the Israeli occupier".
He said his group and Hamas were "committed" to respecting the truce agreement "as long as the occupier does so, and we are ready to pursue a political route to make the occupier pay".
- 'Risk of famine' -
The truce agreement has brought a temporary halt to fighting that began on October 7 when Hamas militants poured over the border into Israel, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping about 240.
Israel's subsequent air and ground campaign in Gaza has killed nearly 15,000 people, also mostly civilians, according to Hamas officials, and reduced large parts of the north of the territory to rubble.
The World Food Programme has warned that Gaza's population faced a "high risk of famine if WFP is not able to provide continued access to food."
Conditions in the territory were "catastrophic", the agency's Middle East director Corinne Fleischer said.
A spokesman for the UN children's agency UNICEF said aid entering Gaza under the truce deal was "not even enough for triage", or emergency care.
An estimated 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza have been forced to leave their homes so far, more than half the territory's population, according to the United Nations.
"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.
"For two days I couldn't eat, then I told myself that I had to continue living," she told AFP. "My house is destroyed but my children are alive, so we will rebuild."
- Call for aid -
Israel has made clear it sees the truce as an interlude to ensure hostage releases before its war to destroy Hamas continues.
Blinken said he believed an extension was in Israel's interest.
"They're also intensely focused on bringing their people home, so we're
working on that," he said.
Israel's allies have been wary of calling for a complete end to military operations designed to eliminate Hamas, but foreign ministers from the Group of Seven have urged a longer truce.
"We support the further extension of this pause and future pauses as needed to enable assistance to be scaled up, and to facilitate the release of all hostages," they said.
Washington has warned Israel that any fresh offensive in southern Gaza must be "done in a way... not designed to produce significant further displacement," a senior US official said.