DEIR AL-BALAH (GAZA STRIP), Nov 23: An agreement for a four-day cease-fire in Gaza and the release of dozens of hostages held by militants and Palestinians imprisoned by Israel appeared to have hit a last-minute snag. A senior Israeli official said it would not take effect until Friday, a day later than originally announced.
The diplomatic breakthrough promised some relief for the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza who have endured weeks of Israeli bombardment, as well as families in Israel fearful for the fate of their loved ones taken captive during Hamas’ Oct 7 attack that triggered the war.
Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, announced the delay late Wednesday, without providing a reason. Negotiators were still “working to create the appropriate conditions” for the cease-fire and swap, according to Majed al-Ansari, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry of Qatar, which played a key role in mediating with Hamas.
The Persian Gulf nation said early Thursday that a new time for the agreement to go into force would be announced “in the coming hours.” It was originally set to begin Thursday morning. The US and Egypt also helped negotiate the deal.
RISING TOLL IN GAZA
The Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza, meanwhile, resumed its detailed count of Palestinian casualties from the war, saying over 13,300 have been killed.
The figures do not include updated numbers from hospitals in the north, where services and communication largely broke down earlier this month, and the ministry says some 6,000 people have been reported missing and are feared to be buried under rubble.
The ministry does not differentiate between civilians and militants in its death tolls. Israel says it has killed thousands of Hamas fighters, though it has presented no evidence for its count.
The ministry stopped publishing casualty counts as of Nov 11, saying it had lost the ability to do so because of the collapse of the health sector in the north.
NETANYAHU SAYS TRUCE WON’T END WAR
The truce agreement had raised hopes of eventually winding down the war, which has levelled vast swaths of Gaza, fuelled a surge of violence in the occupied West Bank, and stirred fears of a wider conflagration across the Middle East.
Air raid sirens sounded across northern Israel on Thursday as Hezbollah said it had fired 48 Katyusha rockets from southern Lebanon. The barrage came after an Israeli strike killed five Hezbollah fighters, including the son of the head of the group’s parliamentary bloc.
The Israeli military said it was striking the sources of the launches. Israel and Hezbollah, which fought a monthlong war in 2006, have repeatedly traded fire across the border since the war in Gaza broke out.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to continue the war against Hamas after the truce expires, with the goal of destroying the group’s military capabilities, ending its 16-year rule in Gaza and returning all of the estimated 240 captives held in Gaza by Hamas and other groups.
“We will continue it until we achieve all our goals,” Netanyahu said, adding that he had delivered the same message in a phone call to US President Joe Biden. Washington has provided extensive military and diplomatic support to Israel since the start of the war.
Israeli troops hold much of northern Gaza and say they have dismantled tunnels and much of Hamas’ infrastructure there. Israeli forces on Wednesday revealed what they said was a major Hamas hideout in a tunnel beneath Shifa Hospital.
The territory’s largest medical centre has been at the heart of a fierce battle of narratives over both sides’ allegedly reckless endangerment of civilians. Hamas and hospital staff deny Israeli allegations that Shifa was used as a militant command centre.
The military said on Thursday that it had detained Mohammed Abu Selmia, the director of Shifa, for questioning over his involvement in what it said were “extensive” Hamas activities in the hospital. Gaza’s Health Ministry called on international bodies to intervene and said it would no longer cooperate with the World Health Organisation in evacuating hospitals.
Earlier on Thursday, Israel had ordered the full evacuation of the Indonesian Hospital in the north, Dr Munir al-Boursh, a Health Ministry official inside the facility, told Al-Jazeera.
Fighting has raged outside the hospital for days, and hundreds of people have already been evacuated to the south. It was unclear if the arrest of Abu Selmia would affect those efforts.
Israel has threatened to launch wider operations in southern Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of people who fled the north have crammed into overflowing UN-run shelters with dwindling food, water and basic supplies.
For Hamas, the cease-fire would provide an opportunity to regroup after weeks of apparently heavy losses. Hamas leader Yehya Sinwar, who is believed to be alive and in hiding in Gaza, is likely to claim the release of Palestinian prisoners as a major achievement and declare victory if the war ends.
HOSTAGES TO BE FREED IN STAGES
Under the truce deal, 50 hostages are supposed to be freed in stages, in exchange for the release of what Hamas said would be 150 Palestinian prisoners. Women and children would be released first, and Israel said the truce would be extended an extra day for every additional 10 hostages freed.
The return of hostages could lift spirits in Israel, where their plight has gripped the country. Families of the hostages have staged mass demonstrations to pressure the government to bring them home.
Qatar said the cease-fire would allow a “larger number of humanitarian convoys and relief aid” to enter Gaza, including fuel, but it gave no details on quantities. Israel cut off all fuel imports at the start of the war, causing a territory-wide blackout and leaving homes and hospitals reliant on generators, which have also steadily been forced to shut down.
Israel’s Justice Ministry published a list of 300 prisoners eligible to be released, mainly teenagers detained over the past year for rock-throwing and other minor offences.
The war erupted when several thousand Hamas militants stormed into southern Israel, killing at least 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking scores of hostages, including babies, women and older adults, as well as soldiers, for whom Hamas is expected to demand a large number of high-profile prisoners.
More than 1.7 million people, three-fourths of Gaza’s population, have been displaced in the war. Many, if not most, will be unable to return home because of the vast damage and the presence of Israeli troops in the north.
Israel has barred imports to Gaza since the start of the war, except for a trickle of aid. Humanitarian aid groups operating in Gaza said the truce will prove too short and the Rafah crossing’s capacity insufficient to meet urgent needs. (AP)