GAZA/TEL AVIV (Reuters)
Israel and Hamas struck a last-minute agreement on Thursday 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 let some humanitarian aid into Gaza after much of the coastal territory of 2.3 million people was reduced to wasteland by seven weeks of Israeli bombardment in retaliation for a deadly rampage by Hamas militants on Oct. 7.
However, a deadly shooting in Jerusalem was a potent reminder of the potential for violence to spread.
Israel, which has demanded Hamas release at least 10 hostages per day to keep the ceasefire going, said it received a list at the last minute of those who would go free on Thursday, allowing it to call off plans to resume fighting at dawn.
“In light of the mediators’ efforts to continue the process of releasing the hostages and subject to the terms of the framework, the operational pause will continue,” the Israeli military said in a statement, released minutes before the truce was due to expire at 0500 GMT.
Hamas, which freed 16 hostages on Wednesday while Israel released 30 Palestinian prisoners, also said the truce would continue for a seventh day.
U.S. 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. It’s important, and we hope it can 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,” he said. “It’s also enabled an increase in humanitarian assistance to go to innocent civilians in Gaza who need it desperately.”
Egypt’s state media body said Egyptian and Qatari mediators were working to negotiate a further extension of the truce for two days.
So far militants have released 97 hostages during the truce: 70 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.
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.
Two killed in Jerusalem attack
Shortly after the 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.
“This event proves again how we must not show weakness, that we must speak to Hamas only through (rifle) scopes, only through war,” said hard-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir at the site of the attack.
Hamas said the attackers 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. There were no signs of the attack interrupting the functioning of the truce in Gaza or planned releases of hostages and detainees.
Israel has sworn to annihilate Hamas, which rules Gaza, in response to the Oct. 7 rampage by the militant 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% of them children. A further 6,500 are missing, many feared still buried under rubble.
According to the United Nations, up to 80% of Gazans have been forced from their homes, including nearly all residents of the northern half, which Israel ordered completely evacuated. Once the truce is over, Israel is expected to extend its ground campaign into the south.
Gazans have been able to use the week-long truce to venture out, visit abandoned and destroyed homes, and dig scores more bodies out of the wreckage. But residents and international agencies say the aid that has arrived so far is still trivial compared to the besieged enclave’s vast humanitarian needs.
Those who fled the north of the Gaza Strip, including Gaza City, have still been blocked from returning. Many thousands of families are sleeping rough in makeshift shelters with only the belongings they could carry.
“What is a truce that doesn’t bring us back home? Israeli soldiers on tanks fired at us when we tried to go back to check on our homes in Gaza City after we heard it was bombed,” said Mohammad Joudat, 25, a displaced business administration graduate, speaking in Deir al-Balah in the southern Gaza Strip.
The United States, which has strongly backed its ally so far, is urging Israel to narrow the zone of combat and clarify where Palestinian civilians can seek safety during any Israeli operation in southern Gaza, U.S. officials said on Wednesday, to prevent a repeat of the massive death toll so far.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday the Gaza Strip was in the midst of an “epic humanitarian catastrophe”, and he and others called for a full ceasefire to replace the temporary truce. Israel rejects a permanent ceasefire as benefitting Hamas, a position backed by Washington.
Jordan was hosting a conference attended by the main U.N., regional and international relief agencies on Thursday to coordinate aid to Gaza.