Israel, Hamas agree to hostage release, four-day cease fire; at least 50 hostages would be freed

Israel, Hamas agree to hostage release, four-day cease fire; at least 50 hostages would be freed

JERUSALEM — Israel’s Cabinet on Wednesday approved a temporary ceasefire with Hamas that is expected to bring the first halt in fighting in a devastating six-week war and win freedom for dozens of hostages held captive in the Gaza Strip.

The deal, confirmed late Tuesday by Hamas, calls for a four-day ceasefire, during which Israel will halt its military offensive in Gaza while Hamas frees “at least” 50 of the roughly 240 hostages it and other terrorist groups are holding, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said.

The first hostages to be released are women and children. Of the nine U.S. citizens and one U.S. legal permanent resident believed held by Hamas, two women and a girl are expected to be in the first wave of those freed, The Washington Post reported.

“The government of Israel is committed to bringing all of the hostages home. Tonight, the government approved the outline for the first stage of achieving this goal,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.

Hamas confirmed the deal in a statement on Telegram. As Hamas views the deal, Israel will cease military activity “in all regions of the Gaza Strip,” and hundreds of trucks for humanitarian, relief, medical and fuel aid will be allowed in, The Post reported.

Qatar’s Foreign Ministry said early Wednesday the start time for the ceasefire would be announced within 24 hours and that the pause would last four days, “subject to extension.”

Media reports said Israel would free some 150 Palestinian prisoners as part of the deal, but the Israeli statement made no mention of a prisoner release. It was not clear when the truce, brokered by the U.S. and Qatar, would go into effect.

A woman plasters photos of Israeli children from Kibbutz Afar Azza missing and held captive in Gaza, in Tel Aviv, Israel Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023. The hostages, mostly Israeli citizens, were kidnapped during an Oct. 7 Hamas cross-border attack in Israel and have been held in Gaza since then. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
A woman plasters photos of Israeli children from Kibbutz Afar Azza missing and held captive in Gaza, in Tel Aviv, Israel on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Hostage releases will begin roughly 24 hours after the deal is approved by all parties, said a senior White House official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matters.

Ahead of the Israeli cabinet vote, which came after a six-hour meeting stretching into the early morning, Netanyahu said the war against Hamas would resume after the truce expires.

“We are at war, and we will continue the war,” he said. “We will continue until we achieve all our goals.”

Despite Netanyahu’s tough words, the government statement said the truce would be extended an extra day for every additional 10 hostages released by Hamas.

A longer-term lull could lead to pressure, both international and domestic, for Israel to end its war without achieving its goal of destroying Hamas’ military capabilities.

The war erupted on Oct. 7 when several thousand Hamas terrorists burst across the border into Israel, killing at least 1,200 people and taking hundreds hostage. Most of the dead were civilians, while the hostages include small children, women and older people.

FILE - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a press conference with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz in the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

Israel responded with weeks of blistering airstrikes on Gaza, followed by a ground invasion that began over three weeks ago.

More than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed during the Israeli offensive, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory. It does not differentiate between civilians and fighters, though Israel says thousands of Hamas fighters have been killed.

The invasion has caused vast destruction in northern Gaza, including the metropolis of Gaza City, displaced an estimated 1.7 million people and caused a humanitarian crisis with shortages of food, medicines, fuel and other key supplies throughout the territory.

Israel has rejected growing international criticism and vowed to press ahead until it destroys Hamas’ military and governing capabilities and all hostages are freed. Hamas, an Islamic terrorist group sworn to Israel’s destruction, has ruled Gaza since ousting the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007.

Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip, as seen from the town of Sderot, southern Israel, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike Tuesday in the Gaza Strip, as seen from the town of Sderot, southern Israel. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Under Wednesday’s deal, Hamas is to release roughly 12 hostages each day. While the statement did not say when the truce would begin, Israeli media reports said the hostages could begin to be released as soon as Thursday.

The return of any of hostages could lift spirits in Israel, where the plight of the captives has gripped the country’s attention. 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 mass demonstrations and marches pressuring the government to bring home their loved ones. They have made a central Tel Aviv square their headquarters, where evocative displays like a long white table with seats for all 240 hostages are meant to keep their plight in the public eye.

But the structure of the deal could weaken Israel from various directions.

Any lull would give Hamas and its shadowy leader, Yehya Sinwar, a chance to regroup after suffering heavy losses during the fighting, especially if Hamas drags things out with additional hostage releases. Hamas is considered a terrorist group by the United States.

Israel claims to have killed thousands of Hamas fighters, though it has not presented evidence, and destroyed parts of the group’s underground tunnel system. But Israeli officials acknowledge much of the group’s infrastructure remains intact.

A ceasefire could also add to the already growing international pressure on Israel to halt its offensive as the full extent of damage in Gaza becomes apparent. Even the U.S., Israel’s chief backer, has expressed concerns about the heavy toll on Gaza’s civilian population.

Some three-quarters of Gaza’s population has been uprooted from their homes and are staying in filthy, 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 people remain in shelters or are forced to live in tents through the cold, rainy winter.

And in Israel, the staggered releases of hostages risks triggering divisions between families of those who are freed and those who remain in captivity. Soldiers, for instance, are likely to be among the last to be freed. Families of the soldiers, who include young women who served as spotters along the border, are likely to press the government not to resume the offensive until their loved ones return home as well.

With Daily News Staff

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