SAWT BEIRUT INTERNATIONAL

| 21 February 2024, Wednesday |

Israel and Hamas agree on truce to free hostages in swap, raising hopes of halting war in Gaza

Israel and Hamas agreed to a four-day ceasefire 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.

Qatar, which has played a key role in mediating with Hamas, announced the deal, saying a start time would be given Wednesday or early Thursday. 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, and the supply of humanitarian aid flowing into the besieged territory will be ramped up.

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 had 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 Sheikh Radwan neighborhood.

A DIPLOMATIC BREAKTHROUGH

The announcement capped weeks of indirect Qatari-led negotiations between Israel and Hamas, the militant group that seized Gaza from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007 and has governed it since. The United States and Egypt were also involved in stop-and-go talks to free some of the roughly 240 hostages captured by Hamas and other militants during their Oct. 7 raid.

US President Joe Biden welcomed the deal, saying Netanyahu has committed to supporting an “extended pause” to make sure that the hostages are released and humanitarian aid can be sent to Gaza.

Qatar’s prime minister and top diplomat, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said he hoped the deal would eventually lead to a permanent ceasefire 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 released 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 for release 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, frequently during gunbattles triggered by army raids.

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 US, 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 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 ceasefire.

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 to be 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 remain in Gaza. Soldiers are likely to be the last to be released, and their families may press the government to extend the truce until they return home.

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.”

Hamas will meanwhile get a chance to regroup after suffering heavy losses, especially if it extends the truce with additional hostage releases. 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.

 

    Source:
  • Asharq Al-Awsat