Hamas says it is releasing 10 more Israeli hostages on Thursday, as well as the bodies of three dead hostages, after negotiators reached an agreement to extend the Israeli-Hamas cease-fire for a seventh day.
In turn, Israel is expected to release more jailed Palestinians after negotiations over a continuing cease-fire went to within 15 minutes of the deadline before the six days of two previous truces were about to end.
Near the deadline to reach a new agreement, Israel accepted the Hamas offer of eight new hostages, plus the two Israeli Russians released on Wednesday as part of the freed group. Later, Hamas said 10 new hostages would be freed, apparently including two female Israeli hostages who were released on Thursday to the Red Cross in Gaza City.
The Israel Defense Forces tweeted in Hebrew, "In light of the mediators' efforts to continue the process of releasing the abductees and subject to the terms of the agreement, the cease-fire will continue."
Israel was reported to have been unhappy with the initial list of hostages to be released that Hamas had proposed for the single-day truce extension.
Hamas said Israel had declined its offer of seven women and child hostages and the bodies of three others who the militants said were killed during an Israeli bombardment. Hamas said in a statement that the 10 were the only women and children hostages under its control.
With most of the women and children held by Hamas apparently already freed, negotiations over the release of Israeli male soldiers and civilians held by Hamas and Palestinian combatants jailed by Israel is likely to prove more difficult, if the cessation in fighting is to be extended beyond Thursday.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Tel Aviv on Thursday. At the start of the meeting, Blinken told Herzog the United States believes the truce is producing results and should continue.
“We have seen over the last week the very positive development of hostages coming home, being reunited with their families, and that should continue today,” Blinken said. “It’s also enabled a significant increase in humanitarian assistance to go to innocent civilians in Gaza, who need it desperately.”
In his statement, Herzog said that an attack carried out by two Palestinian gunmen Thursday morning in Jerusalem that killed at least three people and injured several others was an example of “the endless war” that Israel is “fighting against terror organizations, especially Hamas, in these very complicated and challenging times.”
Hard-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said at the site of the attack, "This event proves again how we must not show weakness, that we must speak to Hamas only through [rifle] scopes, only through war."
Hamas said the attackers, both of whom were killed by Israeli authorities, were its members, acting "as a natural response to unprecedented crimes conducted by the occupation," but did not explicitly claim to have directed the attack.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also met with Blinken and said he told the top U.S. diplomat that the Thursday attackers represented “the same Hamas that perpetrated the terrible massacre on October 7, and the same Hamas that is trying to murder us everywhere.”
“I told him, ‘We have sworn, I have sworn, to eliminate Hamas. Nothing will stop us,’” Netanyahu said. “We will continue this war until we achieve the three goals: freeing all of our hostages, completely eliminating Hamas, and ensuring that no threat like this will ever come from Gaza again."
The Israeli leader ordered the homes of the two Palestinian gunmen sealed and demolished.
At a news conference late Thursday, Blinken said, "Hamas cannot remain in control of Gaza. It cannot retain the capacity to repeat that carnage. That was only underscored by this morning's appalling terrorist attack on people waiting at a bus stop in Jerusalem, which killed three Israeli civilians and wounded at least six others, including two American citizens. Hamas has claimed responsibility for that attack. It called its perpetrators heroic."
In his talks with Netanyahu, the U.S. State Department said, Blinken reaffirmed U.S. support for Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas attacks but “urged Israel to take every possible measure to avoid civilian harm.”
Blinken later met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, with the State Department saying they discussed the “urgent need for measures to improve security and freedom for Palestinians in the West Bank.”
Negotiations for cease-fire and hostages
Qatar and Egypt have played key roles in negotiating the truces, with Egypt saying the two Arab countries will now try to prolong the cease-fire by another two days beyond Thursday.
So far, militants have released 97 hostages during the first six days of the truce — 70 of them Israeli women and children, each freed in return for three Palestinian women and teenage detainees — plus 27 foreign hostages freed under parallel agreements with their governments.
Based on the Hamas seizure of about 240 hostages during its shock October 7 attack that killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel, the militants could still have been holding more than 140 hostages before any Thursday releases.
In response, Israel’s aerial bombardment of Gaza and subsequent ground offensive has leveled hundreds of buildings, and according to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry, killed more than 15,000 people, with another 6,500 missing, possibly buried under the rubble of destroyed buildings.
Hamas militants freed 16 hostages on Wednesday, the sixth and last day of the first two truces between the warring parties.
Five Israeli women, three children and two young men were freed along with four Thai nationals. Hamas had freed two Russian Israeli women, ages 50 and 73, earlier in a separate release. Early Thursday, Israel released 30 Palestinians from its jails in return, including Ahed Tamini, a well-known activist.
No to a "permanent cease-fire"
One Israeli official had told The Washington Post that the truce on Thursday could be extended by two or three days, but a further cessation in fighting would not “lead to a permanent cease-fire.” Ultimately, the warring parties only agreed to an additional day for the truce.
The Israeli official said that the “goal of removing Hamas from its rule in Gaza” remains as the key objective for the Jewish state after Hamas’ attack last month.
The IDF said Wednesday that Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi, the Israeli army’s chief of staff, has approved plans for “the continuation of the fighting” in Gaza after the pauses end.
The original Israel-Hamas truce called for four days of Israel pausing its campaign to eradicate Hamas, with Hamas releasing 50 hostages it seized during an attack on Israel last month and Israel freeing 150 Palestinian prisoners. The pause also allowed for increased humanitarian aid to reach the battered Gaza Strip.
A two-day extension was added under the terms of Hamas releasing 10 more hostages per day and Israel freeing additional prisoners.
The six-day truce has brought Gaza its first respite after six weeks of intensive Israeli aerial bombardment and a ground offensive prompted by the Hamas attack.
With the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, the United Nations estimates 1.8 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have fled their homes, with many staying in overcrowded shelters. Shelter Network, a U.N.-led aid consortium, said in a report last Friday that more than 60% of Gaza’s housing stock has been damaged or destroyed.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday said the Gaza Strip was in the middle of an "epic humanitarian catastrophe." He and others called for a full cease-fire to replace the temporary truces. But Israel has rejected a permanent cease-fire as benefiting Hamas, a position backed by the United States.
Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.