Palestinian territories – Hopes rose on Tuesday that Hamas could free dozens of hostages from war-torn Gaza after the Israeli prime minister said a truce deal was the “right decision” and the militant group’s leader and main mediator, Qatar, said a deal was in sight.
The announcements are the most optimistic yet about a potential breakthrough in the conflict, which has lasted more than six weeks and left thousands dead on both sides.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting that accepting a deal for the release of hostages taken in the October 7 Hamas attacks was “a difficult decision, but it is a right decision.”
Netanyahu, who has vowed to destroy Hamas, said US President Joe Biden helped “improve the framework that is being presented to you… to include more hostages at a lower price.”
“The entire security system fully supports it.”
Despite rumors of a temporary truce, fighting continued in the bloodiest war ever in Gaza, triggered by the October 7 attack, in which Israel says Hamas gunmen killed around 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and captured around of 240 hostages.
In retaliation, Israel launched a relentless bombing campaign and ground offensive in Gaza. According to the Hamas government, the war killed more than 14,100 people, including nearly 6,000 children and nearly 4,000 women.
The families of the hostages demanded that Israel insist on the return of all those detained, and the Religious Zionist Party, which is part of Netanyahu’s coalition government, expressed opposition to the agreement, denouncing it as “bad” for Israel’s security. for hostages and soldiers.
Sources from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which also participated in the October 7 attacks, told AFP on condition of anonymity that the interim agreement would include a five-day truce, consisting of a complete ceasefire on the ground and the end of Israeli air operations. over Gaza, except in the north, where they stopped for only six hours a day.
Under the deal, which sources said could still change, between 50 and 100 Israeli civilians and dual nationals would be released in exchange for around 300 Palestinian women and children currently detained in Israeli prisons.
The agreement needs the support of Israel’s war cabinet, security cabinet and cabinet. The first two meetings have already been held, but the results have not yet been released.
Hopes for a release deal have been rising since Qatar said on Sunday that only “minor” practical matters remained.
Before the meetings, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said: “We are close to reaching a truce agreement.”
In Qatar, Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed Al-Ansari said “we are very optimistic, very hopeful” and told journalists: “We are at the closest point we have ever been to reaching an agreement.”
Biden, who does not support a full ceasefire, said a temporary truce was “now very close.”
“We could be bringing some of these hostages home very soon,” he said. “But I don’t want to get into the details of things because nothing gets done until it’s done.”
The BRICS group of nations, including Russia, India and China, called for an “immediate, lasting and sustained humanitarian truce leading to the cessation of hostilities” in Gaza, with the aim of developing a common response to the conflict.
Rafah resident Hamza Abdel Razeq said a ceasefire would bring some relief to Gazans who have endured Israel’s bombardment and expanded ground offensive.
“People are really suffering,” he told AFP. “If they reach a five-day truce agreement now, I believe it will pave the way for longer truces or even a full ceasefire.”
Another resident, Mahmud Abu Najm, added: “We… pray to God for their success because people are facing an unbearable situation.”
Large parts of Gaza have been devastated by thousands of airstrikes and the territory is under siege, with minimal input of food, water and fuel.
According to Hamas and Islamic Jihad sources, the proposed agreement would also allow up to 300 trucks of food and medical aid to enter Gaza.
Israel promised to continue its offensive, pledging to crush Hamas and guarantee the release of the hostages.
Meanwhile, the Israeli military said airstrikes had hit “around 250” Hamas targets the previous day, destroying three underground wells in the Jabalia area, which it said it had completely surrounded.
Two soldiers were killed in northern Gaza, he added.
In the occupied West Bank, the Health Ministry said the Israeli army killed a Palestinian in Nablus.
In southern Lebanon, where exchanges of fire between Israel and Hamas ally Hezbollah have raised fears of a wider conflict, eight people, including two journalists, were killed on Tuesday in Israeli strikes.
And in Iraq, a US strike killed several Iranian-backed militiamen after they fired a short-range missile at US and allied forces in the country, the Pentagon said.
Doctors and patients have been increasingly drawn into the fighting as Israel expands its operation in northern Gaza.
The Hamas-run Health Ministry said Israel besieged and targeted the Indonesian hospital in Jabalia on Monday, killing dozens of people, but there was no independent confirmation of the number.
The Israeli army later said that its troops had “directly targeted” the source of the fire inside the Indonesian Hospital.
Twenty-eight premature babies from Gaza’s largest hospital, Al-Shifa, were taken to Egypt for treatment on Monday. Three others remained in southern Gaza, the World Health Organization said on Tuesday.
Two babies died before the evacuation, he said.
The Indonesian Hospital is close to Gaza’s largest refugee camp, Jabalia, which has been the scene of intense Israeli bombings.
The Health Ministry official said there were still around 400 patients inside the hospital, as well as 2,000 people seeking shelter.
Around 200 people were evacuated from the hospital on Monday and transported by bus to the relative safety of a hospital in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said three doctors, including two it employed, were killed in an Israeli attack on Al-Awda hospital in the Jabalia refugee camp.
Israel says Hamas uses medical facilities to hide fighters and as bases for operations, making them legitimate military objectives, while insisting it does everything possible to limit harm to civilians.
But criticism of Israel’s conduct in the war has increased, from international agencies and some governments, with protests taking place around the world.
The WHO said it was “appalled” by the Indonesian Hospital strike, calling it just one of 164 documented attacks on healthcare facilities and workers since the start of the war.
The UN children’s agency, meanwhile, warned that fuel shortages and deteriorating sanitation in Gaza were turning into “a perfect storm for tragedy” through the spread of disease.