Mediators look to extend truce in Gaza on its final day, with one more hostage swap planned
RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — International mediators appeared to make progress Wednesday on extending the truce in Gaza, encouraging the territory’s Hamas rulers to keep freeing hostages in return for the release of Palestinian prisoners and further respite from Israel’s air and ground offensive. It will otherwise expire within a day.
Israel has welcomed the release of dozens of hostages in recent days and says it will maintain the truce if Hamas keeps freeing captives. But its other major goal — the annihilation of the armed group that has ruled Gaza for 16 years and orchestrated the deadly attack on Israel that triggered the war — seems less and less likely.
Weeks of heavy aerial bombardment and a ground invasion have demolished vast swaths of northern Gaza and killed thousands of Palestinians. But it seems to have had little effect on Hamas’ rule, evidenced by its ability to conduct complex negotiations, enforce the cease-fire among other armed groups, and orchestrate the smooth release of hostages.
Yehya Sinwar and other Hamas leaders have likely relocated to the south, along with hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians who have packed into overflowing shelters.
An Israeli ground invasion of the south could eventually ferret out Hamas’ leaders and demolish the rest of its militant infrastructure, including kilometres (miles) of tunnels, but at a cost in Palestinian lives and destruction that the United States, Israel’s main ally, seems unwilling to bear.
The Biden administration has told Israel that if it resumes the offensive it must operate with far greater precision, especially in the south. That approach is unlikely to bring Hamas to its knees any time soon, and international pressure for a lasting cease-fire is already mounting.
“How far both sides will be prepared to go in trading hostages and prisoners for the pause is about to be tested, but the pressures and incentives for both to stick with it are at the moment stronger than the incentives to go back to war,” Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, wrote on X.
Diaa Rashwan, head of Egypt’s state information services, said negotiations to extend the cease-fire and release more hostages have made progress and that it is “highly likely” another extension will be announced Wednesday.
Egypt, along with Qatar and the US, played a key role in mediating the original cease-fire and a two-day extension announced Monday. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is expected to push for a longer truce, was set to visit the region this week.
A joint statement from foreign ministers of the G7 group of wealthy democracies, which includes close allies of Israel, called for the “further extension of the pause” and for “protecting civilians and compliance with international law.”
The war began with Hamas’ October 7 attack into southern Israel, in which it killed over 1,200 people, mostly civilians. The militants dragged some 240 people back into Gaza, including babies, children, women, soldiers, older adults and Thai farm labourers.
Israel responded with a devastating air campaign across Gaza and a ground invasion in the north. More than 13,300 Palestinians have been killed, 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.