Israel, Hamas Truce and Hostage Release Delayed

Israeli troops patrol along a street during a military operation in the northern Gaza Strip amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, on November 22, 2023. Photo by Ahikam SERI / AFP

Jerusalem, Undefined -- Israel said a four-day Gaza truce and hostage release will not start until at least Friday, stalling a breakthrough deal to pause the brutal and bloody seven-week-old war.

Israeli national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi indicated the release of at least 50 Israeli and foreign hostages held by Hamas was on track, but would not happen until Friday at the earliest.

"The contacts on the release of our hostages are advancing and continuing constantly," he said in a statement.

"The start of the release will take place according to the original agreement between the sides, and not before Friday."

A second Israeli official said that a halt in fighting would also not take place on Thursday, as had been expected.

The delay is a hammer blow to families desperate to see their loved ones return home, and to two million-plus Gazans praying for an end to 47 days of war and destruction.

The complex and carefully choreographed deal saw Israel and Hamas militants agree a four-day truce, during which at least 50 hostages taken in the deadly October 7 attacks would be released.

Three Americans, including three-year-old Abigail Mor Idan, were among the hostages earmarked for release.

For every 10 additional hostages released, there would be an extra day's "pause" in fighting, an Israeli government document said.

In turn, Israel would release at least 150 Palestinian women and children and allow more humanitarian aid into the coastal territory after weeks of bombardment, heavy fighting and a crippling siege.

It was not immediately clear what caused the delay, or whether it signalled a serious breakdown in implementation.

The deal had been expected to come into force from Thursday, despite fierce opposition from some in Israel's hard-right government.

Hardline interior minister Itamar Ben-Gvir described the deal as a "historic mistake" that would embolden Hamas and risk the lives of Israeli troops.

An estimated 240 hostages were taken by Hamas and other Palestinian gunmen during bloody raids into Israel on October 7, which are also believed to have killed 1,200 people.

The shock attack prompted a blistering Israeli offensive into Hamas-run Gaza, which authorities there say has killed more than 14,000 people.

Most casualties on both sides are said to be civilians, although exact tolls could not be independently verified.

Israel's embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has backed the agreement with Hamas -- brokered by Qatar, the United States and Egypt -- but vowed it will be temporary and will not end the campaign to destroy Hamas.

"We are winning and will continue to fight until absolute victory," he said on Wednesday, vowing to secure Israel from threats emanating from Gaza and Lebanon, home to Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants.

Tensions rose on Israel's northern border early Thursday, after Hezbollah said five fighters, including the son of a senior lawmaker, had been killed.

A source close to the family of Hezbollah's Abbas Raad told AFP that his son and others were killed in an Israeli strike on a house in Beit Yahun, southern Lebanon.

Since the Israel-Hamas war began on October 7, the frontier between Lebanon and Israel has seen almost daily exchanges of fire, raising fears the Gaza war fuel a broader conflagration.

Israel's army said in statements Wednesday evening that it had struck a number of Hezbollah targets, including a "terrorist cell" and infrastructure.

In Washington, the White House said President Joe Biden had spoken to Netanyahu on Wednesday and "emphasised the importance of maintaining calm along the Lebanese border as well as in the West Bank."

The White House has pressed Israel not to escalate clashes with Hezbollah, for fear of sparking a war that could drag in US and Iranian forces.

- 'Pain in my heart' -

Families on both sides grappled with a lack of clarity over how the releases would unfold.

"We don't know who will get out because Hamas will release the names every evening of those who will get out the next day," said Gilad Korngold, whose son and daughter-in-law are being held in Gaza along with their two children and other relatives.

Israel's list of eligible Palestinian prisoners included 123 detainees under 18 and 33 women, among them Shrouq Dwayyat, convicted of attempted murder in a 2015 knife attack.

"I had hoped that she would come out in a deal," her mother, Sameera Dwayyat, said, but added that her relief was tempered by "great pain in my heart" over the dead children in Gaza.

At Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, war-weary displaced Palestinians remained sceptical about the Israel-Hamas deal.

"What truce are they talking about? We don't need a truce just so aid can come in. We want to go home," said Maysara Assabagh, who fled northern Gaza for a hospital that now shelters about 35,000 displaced people.

Large parts of Gaza have been flattened by thousands of air strikes, and the territory faces shortages of food, water and fuel.

For now, Israel appeared to be pushing on with its offensive in northern Gaza, with witnesses reporting strikes on Kamal Adwan hospital and nearby homes.

Medical workers treated bloodied, dust-covered survivors as other residents fled through debris-strewn streets to safety.

At Gaza's biggest hospital, the Al-Shifa, Israeli soldiers escorted journalists to a tunnel shaft they said was part of a vast underground network Hamas uses for military purposes -- a claim Hamas denies.

At a Tel Aviv plaza now known as Hostages Square, Doron Klein, 49, said he was "hopeful" child hostages would come home but said the deal could pose "risks" to the military operation.

"I think the fear of everybody is that this will give the Hamas time to reorganise and we'll pay a price with more soldiers that will be killed," he said.


© Agence France-Presse

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