JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel and Hamas have reached an agreement for a four-day halt to the devastating war in Gaza, accompanied by the release of dozens of hostages held by the militant group in return for Palestinian prisoners jailed by Israel, mediators said Wednesday.
The truce marks the biggest diplomatic breakthrough since Hamas’ Oct. 7 rampage into southern Israel ignited a war that has devastated vast swaths of Gaza and raised fears of a wider conflict across the Middle East.
The Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, which has played a key role in mediating with Hamas, announced the deal without saying when it would go into effect. Fifty hostages will be released in stages, in exchange for what Hamas said would be 150 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Both sides will release women and children first, and the supply of humanitarian aid flowing into the besieged territory will be ramped up, officials said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would resume the war after the truce and keep fighting “until we achieve all our goals,” including the defeat of Hamas.
Residents in Gaza City said the fighting there had intensified overnight into Wednesday, with gunfire, heavy artillery and airstrikes in central neighborhoods.
“They are mad. 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, an Islamic militant group that seized Gaza from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007. 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 the Oct. 7 raid.
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 cease-fire 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 is standing by to assist any swap.
Israel’s Justice Ministry published a list of 300 prisoners eligible for release as part of the deal, mainly teenagers arrested over the past year for rock-throwing and other minor offenses. Under Israeli law, the public has 24 hours to object to any release.
As the full extent of the devastation becomes known and as hostages are released, pressure could grow on Israel to end its war without achieving its goal of crushing Hamas. Even the U.S., Israel’s chief backer, has expressed concerns about the heavy toll on Gaza’s civilian population.
Despite the massive destruction across Gaza and the killing of thousands of Palestinian civilians, Hamas 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 without removing it from power.
In a statement Wednesday, Hamas said hundreds of trucks carrying humanitarian aid — including fuel — would be allowed to enter Gaza. It said Israeli aircraft would stop flying over southern Gaza for the duration of the four-day cease-fire and for six hours daily in the north.
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 capturing scores more. 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, which says it is no longer able to keep count because of the collapse of the health sector in the north. It does not differentiate between civilians and militants, though some two-thirds of the dead have been identified as women and minors.
The invasion has caused vast destruction in northern Gaza, including Gaza City, displaced over 1.7 million people and caused 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.
Israel has rejected growing international criticism and vowed to press ahead until it destroys Hamas’ military and governing capabilities and all hostages are freed.
RETURN OF HOSTAGES
The return of hostages could lift spirits in Israel, where the plight of the captives has gripped the country. Airwaves are filled with interviews with families of the hostages, who include babies and toddlers, women and children, and people in their 80s with health issues.
The families have become a powerful force in Israel, staging mass demonstrations and marches pressuring the government to bring home their loved ones.
The structure of the deal could limit Israel’s ability to press its offensive, even after the truce expires.
Any pause would give Hamas and its shadowy leader, Yehya Sinwar, a chance to regroup after suffering heavy losses, especially if Hamas drags things out with additional hostage releases.
Israel claims to have killed thousands of Hamas fighters, though it has not presented evidence, and destroyed parts of the group’s underground tunnel system. But Israeli officials acknowledge much of Hamas’ infrastructure remains intact.
Some three-quarters of Gaza’s population has been uprooted from their homes, with most packing into overcrowded and unsanitary shelters.
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. That could lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster as the cold, rainy winter sets in.
DIVISIONS IN ISRAEL
In Israel, the staggered hostage releases could divide the families of those who are freed from those who remain in captivity. Soldiers are likely to be the last to be freed, and their families may press the government not to resume the offensive until their loved ones return home.
“There are many families and many opinions,” Hadas Kalderon, whose two young children were abducted with their father, told Israel’s Channel 12 TV.
A lengthy truce could also affect Israel’s battle readiness. While Israeli troops are expected to remain in place, it will be difficult and risky for the army to leave its forces stationary behind enemy lines. The Israeli military says 68 soldiers have been killed in the ground offensive.
Iran-backed armed groups across the Middle East have been drawn into the war, with Lebanon’s Hezbollah trading fire with Israel on a daily basis along the border and Yemen’s Houthi rebels launching drones and missiles as well as seizing an Israeli-linked cargo ship.
Violence has also soared in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where more than 200 Palestinians have been killed, mainly during gunbattles triggered by Israeli army raids.
Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel and Magdy from Cairo. Associated Press reporters Najib Jobain in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip; Wafaa Shurafa in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip; and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed.
Full AP coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war.