A Palestinian prisoner is welcomed by friends and family after being released from an Israeli jail. Alamy Stock Photo

Mediators working to extend truce as Israel army investigates Hamas report of baby hostage death

The current truce is scheduled to expire tonight after a six-day pause in the conflict.

LAST UPDATE | Nov 29th 2023, 9:59 PM

MEDIATORS ARE WORKING to extend the truce between Israel and Hamas, as more hostages were released on what is the sixth and final day of the temporary ceasefire. 

A group of ten Israeli hostages and four Thais freed by Hamas in the Gaza Strip arrived in Egypt tonight, state-linked television showed.

In a statement, the Israeli military said the released hostages were on their way to Israel through Egyptian territory.

It comes as Israel’s army today said it was investigating a report by Hamas’s armed wing that a 10-month-old baby hostage, his four-year-old brother and their mother had all been killed in Gaza.

The military was “verifying the accuracy of the information”, it said in a statement.

It added: “Hamas is endangering the lives of all the hostages in the Gaza Strip, who include nine children, and is responsible for their security.”

Amid negotiations to extend a truce over Gaza, a senior Hamas official said it was ready to release all the Israeli soldiers it is holding captive in exchange for all Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.

“We are ready to release all soldiers in exchange for all our prisoners,” Hamas official and former Gaza health minister Bassem Naim told a press conference in Cape Town, South Africa.

A Hamas source also said, hours before the truce is set to expire, that the Palestinian militant group is not satisfied with Israel’s proposals for another extension.

“What is being proposed in the discussions to extend the truce is not the best,” the source told AFP, adding that the talks were focused on an extension of “two days or more” of the pause.

The current truce is scheduled to expire tonight after a six-day pause in the conflict, sparked by deadly Hamas attacks that prompted a devastating Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

So far, 60 Israeli hostages have been freed from Gaza under the terms of the deal, with a Russian-Israeli, 20 Thais and one Filipino freed outside the scope of the agreement.

In return, 180 Palestinian prisoners – all women and children – have been released.

With more set to walk free today under the agreement, Qatari mediators said they were working for a “sustainable” ceasefire.

Today, Hamas “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.

Qatar’s foreign ministry spokesman Majed Al Ansari told a Doha news conference yesterday that negotiators were seeking “a sustainable truce that will lead to further negotiations and eventually to an end… to this war.”

A source with knowledge of the talks added in comments to AFP today that discussions were “focused on building on the progress of the extended humanitarian pause agreement and to initiate further discussions about the next phase of a potential deal.”

Hostages, prisoners released

After a 48-hour extension of an initial four-day truce, a new group of 12 hostages was freed from Gaza yesterday, 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.

gaza-gaza-28th-nov-2023-hamas-fighters-accompany-newly-released-hostages-before-handing-them-over-to-the-red-cross-in-rafah-the-southern-gaza-strip-on-tuesday-november-28-2023-today-is-the-fif Hamas fighters accompany newly released hostages before handing them over to the Red Cross in Rafah, the southern Gaza Strip. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The Israeli hostages freed were all women, including 17-year-old Mia Leimberg, who returned to Israel with her mother and aunt.

The three were all abducted from kibbutz Nir Yitzhak, and the teenager was seen after her release holding her dog Bella.

The grandmother of 12-year-old Eitan Yahalomi, who was released on Monday, said the boy had been held in solitary confinement for 16 days.

“The days that he was alone were horrible,” Esther Yaeli told Israeli news website Walla. “Now Eitan appears very withdrawn.”

Hamas has also released a Russian-Israeli, 20 Thais and one Filipino outside the scope of the agreement.

Thailand’s foreign ministry said 17 of the released Thai hostages would arrive back in the kingdom tomorrow. It said about 13 Thais remained among the hostages held in Gaza.

Among the Palestinian prisoners freed in yesterday’s exchange was 14-year-old Ahmad Salaima who returned to his home in east Jerusalem to cheers and hugs from relatives.

“When Ahmed was in prison, we couldn’t visit him, even though he’s the youngest Palestinian prisoner,” his father Nayef said.

Israel’s government has received a list of the new hostages to be freed Wednesday, Israeli media reported. There was no official confirmation.

‘Risk of famine’

The truce agreement has brought a temporary halt to fighting that began on 7 October when Hamas militants crossed the border into Israel, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping about 240.

Screenshot (421) A Palestinian man cooks food around the destruction in the village of Khuza'a near the border fence between Israel and the southern Gaza Strip. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Israel’s subsequent air and ground campaign in Gaza has killed nearly 15,000 people, also mostly civilians, according to Palestinian officials, and reduced large parts of the north of the territory to rubble.

The World Food Programme warned yesterday 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 are “catastrophic,” the agency’s Middle East director Corinne Fleischer said.

The spokesman for the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry, Ashraf al-Qudra, told AFP Wednesday that doctors found five premature babies dead in Gaza City’s Al-Nasr hospital.

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.

Speaking from a shelter in Khan Younis, Christian Aid’s consultant in Gaza has said the truce has given the opportunity for more humanitarian aid to come in, “but 200 truckloads a day is not enough at all to cover the very high needs of people in the Gaza strip”.

“Hopefully aid will be increased so more people can be given food, water, fuel, medicine and all the other things that are desperately needed here,” the consultant said, adding that they hoped the truce would continue and lead to a sustainable ceasefire. 

Gazans ‘fed up’

Yesterday, Hamas and Israel traded accusations of truce violations, but Qatar’s Ansari said the “minimal breaches” did not “harm the essence of the agreement.”

Israel has made clear it sees the truce as a brief interlude to ensure hostage releases before its war continues.

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 in a statement Tuesday.

Washington has also 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.

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 hope this truce will lead to a complete ceasefire, because we are fed up of sleeping outdoors in the rain, of losing our loved ones and having to flee,” said Umm Mohammed, who was forced from her home in northern Gaza by the assault.

The truce in Gaza has not ended violence in the occupied West Bank, where two Palestinian teenagers were killed in clashes with Israeli troops yesterday, the Palestinian health ministry said.

Since the 7 October attacks, more than 230 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank by Israeli soldiers or settlers, according to the ministry.

© AFP 2023