JERUSALEM — Israel and Hamas agreed at the last minute Thursday to extend their cease-fire in Gaza by another day. But any further renewal of the deal that has seen dozens of hostages and prisoners released could prove more daunting since Hamas is expected to set a higher price for many of the remaining captives.
International pressure has mounted for the truce to continue as long as possible after nearly eight weeks of Israeli bombardment and a ground campaign in Gaza that have killed thousands of Palestinians, uprooted more than three-quarters of the population of 2.3 million and led to a humanitarian crisis.
Israel has vowed to resume its offensive once the cease-fire expires.
And the talks appear to be growing tougher, with Hamas having already freed most of the women and children kidnapped during the deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel that triggered the war. The militants are expected to make greater demands in return for freeing scores of civilian men and soldiers.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials on his third visit to the region since the start of the war, said he hoped the cease-fire could be extended and more hostages could be released.
“This process is producing results. It’s important, and we hope that it can continue,” he said.
Qatar, which along with Egypt has played a key role in mediating, announced the latest extension of the truce, under which Hamas has released at least 10 Israeli hostages per day in exchange for Israel’s release of at least 30 Palestinian prisoners. The two Arab countries are now seeking to prolong the deal by another two days, according to Diaa Rashwan, the head of Egypt’s State Information Service.
As word of Thursday’s extension came, gunmen opened fire on people waiting for buses along a main highway entering Jerusalem, killing at least three people and wounding several others, according to police.
The two attackers, brothers from a Palestinian neighborhood in annexed east Jerusalem, were killed. Hamas’ armed wing claimed the attack, casting it as retaliation for the killing of women and children in Gaza and other Israeli “crimes.” The attack did not appear to threaten the truce in Gaza.
INCREASINGLY TENSE HOSTAGE TALKS
Netanyahu is under intense pressure from families of the hostages to bring them home. But his far-right governing partners are also pushing him to continue the war until Hamas is destroyed, and could bolt his coalition if he is seen as making too many concessions.
Israel says it will maintain the truce until Hamas stops releasing captives, at which point it will resume military operations aimed at eliminating the group, even as the Biden administration has urged it to operate with far greater precision if it resumes its offensive.
“As soon as Hamas stops releasing mothers, we’re coming for the fathers. As soon as it stops releasing daughters, we’re coming for the sons,” Israeli government spokesman Eylon Levy said. “We are going to continue putting unrelenting military pressure on Hamas to release everyone.”
The initial truce — which began Friday and has now been extended twice — called for the release of women and children. Israeli officials say Gaza militants still hold around 30 women and children, who would all be released within a few days if the swaps continue at the current rate.
It’s not clear how many of the women might be soldiers. For soldiers and the civilian men still in captivity, Hamas is expected to demand the release of high-profile Palestinians convicted of deadly attacks, something Israel has strongly resisted in the past.
Israel says around 125 men are still held hostage, including several dozen soldiers.
An Israeli official involved in hostage negotiations said talks on a further extension for the release of civilian men and soldiers were still preliminary, and that a deal would not be considered until all the women and children are out. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because talks were ongoing.
So far, most Palestinians released have been teenagers accused of throwing stones and firebombs during confrontations with Israeli forces. Several were women convicted by Israeli military courts of attempting to attack soldiers.
With Wednesday’s releases, a total of 73 Israelis, including dual nationals, have been freed during the six-day truce, most of whom appear physically well but shaken. Another 24 hostages — 23 Thais and one Filipino — have also been released, including several men.
Before the cease-fire, Hamas released four hostages, and the Israeli army rescued one. Two others were found dead in Gaza. On Thursday, the military confirmed the death of Ofir Tzarfati, who was believed to be among the hostages, without providing any further details. The 27-year-old attended a music festival where at least 360 people were killed and several others were kidnapped on Oct. 7.
Hamas and other Palestinian militants killed over 1,200 people — mostly civilians — in their wide-ranging attack across southern Israel that day and captured around 240. Authorities have only ever provided approximate figures.
Israel’s bombardment and ground invasion in Gaza have killed more than 13,300 Palestinians, roughly two-thirds of them women and minors, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza, which does not differentiate between civilians and combatants.
The toll is likely much higher, as officials have only sporadically updated the count since Nov. 11. The ministry says thousands more people are feared dead under the rubble.
Israel says 77 of its soldiers have been killed in the ground offensive. It claims to have killed thousands of militants, without providing evidence.
IN GAZA, AN ANXIOUS RESPITE
During the pause in fighting, Palestinians in Gaza have been consumed by the search for aid and horror at the extent of destruction.
Residents described entire residential blocks as leveled in Gaza City and surrounding areas in the north. The smell of decomposing bodies trapped under collapsed buildings fills the air, said Mohammed Mattar, a 29-year-old resident of the city who along with other volunteers searched for the dead.
In the south, the truce has allowed more aid to be delivered from Egypt, up to 200 trucks a day. But humanitarian officials say it is not enough, given that most now depend on outside aid. Over 1 million displaced people have sought refuge in U.N.-run shelters, with many forced to sleep outside in cold, rainy weather because of overcrowding.
At a distribution center in Rafah, large crowds line up daily for bags of flour but supplies run out quickly.
“Every day, we come here,” said one woman in line, Nawal Abu Namous. “We spend money on transportation to get here, just to go home with nothing.”