JERUSALEM — Israel and Hamas agreed to a four-day cease-fire in the war in Gaza — a breakthrough that will facilitate the release of dozens of hostages held by militants as well as Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, and bring a large influx of aid to the besieged territory, officials said Wednesday.
The truce raised hopes of eventually winding down the war, which was triggered by Hamas’ Oct. 7 rampage into southern Israel. Now in its seventh week, the conflict has leveled vast swaths of Gaza, fueled a surge of violence in the occupied West Bank, and stirred fears of a wider conflagration across the Middle East.
The Persian Gulf nation of Qatar announced the deal, and Egypt’s state-run Qahera TV channel said the truce would take effect at 10 a.m. local time (0800 GMT) Thursday. Both countries, along with the United States, helped mediate the deal between Israel and Hamas.
Fifty hostages will be freed in stages, in exchange for the release of what Hamas said would be 150 Palestinian prisoners. Both sides will let go women and children first.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would resume the war after the truce and keep fighting “until we achieve all our goals,” including the destruction of Hamas’ fighting and governing abilities and the return of all hostages.
Residents in Gaza City said the fighting there intensified overnight into Wednesday, with gunfire, heavy artillery and airstrikes in central neighborhoods. “Apparently they want to advance before the truce,” said Nasser al-Sheikh, who is sheltering with relatives in the city.
Palestinian militants continued firing rockets at Israel throughout the day, without causing casualties.
A DIPLOMATIC BREAKTHROUGH
The announcement capped weeks of indirect, stop-and-go negotiations to free some of the roughly 240 hostages taken by Hamas and other militants during their Oct. 7 raid. Hamas, which seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, is considered a terrorist group by Israel and the West.
U.S. President Joe Biden welcomed the deal, saying Netanyahu committed to supporting an “extended pause.” Several nations, including Britain, France, China and Russia, also welcomed the agreement.
Qatar’s prime minister and top diplomat, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said he hoped the deal would eventually lead to a permanent cease-fire and “serious talks” on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel said that the truce would be extended an extra day for every additional 10 hostages freed by Hamas. The International Committee of the Red Cross said it can assist with any release.
Israel’s Justice Ministry published a list of 300 prisoners eligible to be let out as part of the deal, mainly teenagers detained over the past year for rock-throwing and other minor offenses. Under Israeli law, the public has 24 hours to object to any release.
The Israeli military says it has detained more than 1,850 Palestinians in the West Bank since the war began, mostly suspected Hamas members. More than 200 Palestinians have been killed there, mainly during battles triggered by army raids, and attacks by Jewish settlers have surged, deepening Palestinian despair.
WILL THE WAR RESUME?
The drawn-out process of releasing hostages will force Israel to rein in its offensive and could ultimately mean it ends the war without achieving its goal of crushing Hamas. The devastation has already galvanized international criticism of Israel, and even the U.S., its closest ally, has expressed concern about the heavy toll on Gaza’s civilians.
An airstrike overnight hit a residential building in the southern town of Khan Younis, killing 17 people, including children, said Ahmad Balouny, a relative of the deceased. An Associated Press reporter saw the bodies of two children pulled from the rubble, one of them badly burned.
In northern Gaza, about 60 bodies and 200 people wounded by heavy fighting were brought into the Kamal Adwan Hospital overnight, hospital director Dr. Ahmed al-Kahlout told Al-Jazeera television on Wednesday. He said the hospital is using cooking oil to keep its generator running.
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in central Gaza said 128 bodies were brought in overnight after nearby strikes, more than double the number that arrived Tuesday night.
Despite the heavy toll on Palestinian civilians, Hamas leader Yehya Sinwar will likely present the release of the prisoners — seen by most Palestinians as heroes resisting occupation — as a major achievement, and declare victory if the war ends.
Hamas said hundreds of trucks carrying humanitarian aid — including fuel — would be allowed to enter Gaza, and that Israeli aircraft would limit their operations during the cease-fire.
The war erupted in early October, when several thousand Hamas militants broke through Israel’s formidable defenses and poured into the south, killing at least 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking scores more captive. Israel responded with weeks of devastating airstrikes on Gaza, followed by a ground invasion.
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 militants, though some two-thirds of the dead have been identified as women and minors.
The ministry said that as of Nov. 11 it had lost the ability to count the dead because of the collapse of large parts of the health system, but believes the number has risen sharply since then. Some 2,700 people are missing and believed buried under rubble.
Over 1.7 million Palestinians have been displaced in the war, and 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.
The war has also led to severe shortages of food, medicine and other basics throughout the territory. Israel cut off all fuel imports at the start of the war, causing a territory-wide power blackout.
DEAL COULD DIVIDE ISRAELIS
The return of hostages could lift spirits in Israel, where their plight has gripped the country. Families of the hostages — who include babies and older adults — have staged mass demonstrations to pressure the government to bring them home.
But they could also find themselves divided as some hostages are freed and others not.
Ofri Bibas Levy, whose brother, sister-in-law and two nephews — aged 4 and 10 months — are among the captives, said the deal puts the families in an “inhumane” situation.
“Who will be released, who won’t? Will the kids be freed? Will they be freed with their mothers or not?” she asked The Associated Press before the deal was announced. “No matter which way it happens, there will still be families that will remain worried and sad and angry.”
Two American women and a child are on a list of people expected to be released, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan told NBC News’ “Today” show, but he cautioned that officials are waiting to see who is actually freed.
Hamas will meanwhile get a chance to regroup after suffering heavy losses. Israeli troops and tanks are expected to remain in place, despite the risks of being stationary behind enemy lines.
Israel claims to have killed thousands of Hamas fighters and destroyed parts of the group’s tunnel system. But Israeli officials acknowledge much of Hamas’ infrastructure remains intact. The military says 68 soldiers have been killed in ground operations.