On Thursday, the militant group Hamas released two more Israeli women hostages as part of an extended truce that has halted weeks of deadly conflict.
With the present cease-fire scheduled to expire early Friday, international agencies have urged for an end to the fighting, which was precipitated by fatal Hamas strikes on Israel, prompting Israel to launch a catastrophic operation on the Gaza Strip.
Despite a shooting claimed by Hamas militants that killed three people in Jerusalem, the fragile truce persisted through its seventh day after a 24-hour extension.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to request a longer ceasefire, allowing for more prisoner-hostage exchanges and more help for Gaza’s devastated civilians.
The Israeli military reported on Thursday that at least two female hostages have been returned from Gaza after Hamas released them to the Red Cross.
More were anticipated to be transferred “in the coming hours,” according to the statement. The two were identified as Mia Shem, 21, and Amit Soussana, 40, by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office.
Following an agreement to extend the pause in combat operations until Friday morning, Israel is expected to release more Palestinian captives.
Only hours after the truce was extended, Islamist extremists claimed responsibility for a three-person shooting in Jerusalem and urged for a “escalation of resistance.”
Two gunmen from annexed east Jerusalem killed three people and injured eight others at a bus stop on the city’s western outskirts before being “neutralised” by two off-duty soldiers and civilians, according to police.
Ten Hostages Per Day
Separately, two Israeli troops were mildly hurt in a ramming attack on a checkpoint in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, according to the army, which added that the attacker had also been “shot and neutralised.”
Following Hamas’s brutal October 7 attacks on Israel, international agencies have urged for extra time to let medical supplies, food, and fuel into the beleaguered Gaza Strip.
“We have seen over the last week the very positive development of hostages coming home, being reunited with their families,” Blinken said at a meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Tel Aviv.
“It’s also enabled an increase in humanitarian assistance to go to innocent civilians in Gaza who need it desperately. So this process is producing results. It’s important, and we hope that it can continue.”
Blinken later advised Netanyahu that it was “imperative” to safeguard people in southern Gaza “before any military operations there”.
The latest extended cease-fire was set to expire at 0500 GMT Thursday, but the Israeli army announced the “operational pause” would be extended as international mediators negotiate the release of Hamas hostages.
Qatar, which has led the truce talks with Egypt and the US, said that the pause had been extended by one day “under the same previous conditions.”
According to Israeli police, fighting began on October 7 when Hamas terrorists crossed Gaza’s militarized border into Israel, murdering 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and capturing about 240.
In response, Israel promised to destroy Hamas and launched an air and ground warfare operation in Gaza that the Hamas leadership claims has killed over 15,000 people, largely civilians.
The cease-fire deal provides for extensions if Hamas continues to release 10 hostages per day, but both sides have stated that they are prepared to resume fighting.
Since the cease-fire was declared on November 24, 70 Israeli hostages have been released in exchange for 210 Palestinian inmates.
At least 24 foreigners, mostly Thais living in Israel, have been released in violation of the agreement.
Israel views the truce as a temporary halt in order to liberate captives, but there are rising calls for a longer-term cease-fire.
The hostage releases have brought elation tempered with sorrow, with families waiting each night to see if their loved ones will be released, and learning horrible details from those who return.
Abigail, four, was apprehended after crawling out from under her father’s body, which had been assassinated by militants and was covered in his blood, according to her great aunt Liz Hirsh Naftali.
Prior to the cease-fire, Israeli land and air troops bombarded Gaza, forcing an estimated 1.7 million Palestinians — roughly 80 percent of the population of the Hamas-run enclave — to flee their homes and restricting the entry of food, water, medication, and fuel.
‘Everything is Gone’
Conditions in Gaza remain “catastrophic” and the population faces a “high risk of famine”, according to the World Food Programme.
The truce has allowed some of the displaced to return to their homes, but for many there is little left.
“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.
The violence in Gaza has also heightened tensions in the West Bank, where the Palestinian health ministry reports that almost 240 Palestinians have been murdered by Israeli forces or settlers since October 7.
This amount eclipses the total toll in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last year, when 235 people perished, predominantly Palestinians, according to an AFP assessment.
As international tensions over the crisis rise, Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen announced the recall of the country’s representative in Madrid in response to what he called “outrageous remarks” by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.
Sanchez had said in a television interview he had “serious doubts” over the legality of Israel’s actions in Gaza.