Israel and Hamas on Wednesday agreed to a four-day ceasefire in the war in Gaza – a diplomatic breakthrough that will free dozens of hostages held by militants as well as Palestinians imprisoned in Israel, and bring a large influx of aid to the besieged territory.
The truce raised hopes of eventually winding down the war, which was triggered by Hamas’ Oct. 7 deadly rampage into Israel. Now in its seventh week, the war 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.
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a nationally televised news conference that the war would resume after the truce expires. Israel’s goals are to destroy Hamas’ military capabilities and return all 240 hostages held captive in Gaza.
“I want to be clear. The war is continuing. The war is continuing. We will continue it until we achieve all our goals,” Netanyahu said, adding he had delivered the same message in a phone call to U.S. President Joe Biden. He also said he had instructed the Mossad spy agency to hunt down Hamas’ exiled leadership “wherever they are.”
The ceasefire efforts hit another hurdle when Israel’s national security adviser said in a late-night announcement that the deal would not take effect before Friday, a day later than originally expected. Tzachi Hanegbi gave no reason for the delay, but Channel 13 TV said there were still some last-minute details being ironed out.
If implemented, the deal temporarily freezes both sides at a tenuous moment.
Israeli troops hold much of northern Gaza and say they have dismantled tunnels and much of Hamas’ infrastructure there. But Israeli officials acknowledge the group’s infrastructure remains intact elsewhere. Netanyahu’s announcement Wednesday appeared to be aimed at public concerns that a truce will lead Israel to halt its offensive before achieving its goals.
Israel has said it is determined to take its ground offensive into the south. That could be potentially devastating for Gaza’s uprooted population, most of which is squeezed into the south with nowhere to go to avoid the assault.
Residents in Gaza City said the fighting intensified overnight into Wednesday, with gunfire, heavy artillery and air strikes. Palestinian militants continued firing rockets at Israel throughout the day, without causing casualties.
The announcement of the truce capped weeks of indirect, stop-and-go negotiations to free some of the hostages taken by Hamas and other militants during their Oct. 7 raid. Egypt and Qatar, along with the United States, helped mediate the deal.
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.
Israel said the truce would be extended an extra day for every additional 10 hostages freed by Hamas. Hamas said hundreds of trucks carrying humanitarian aid – including fuel – would be allowed to enter Gaza.
Netanyahu said the deal also included a provision for the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit the hostages in captivity.
The ceasefire is to take effect at 10 a.m. local time (0800 GMT) Thursday, according to Egypt’s state-run Qahera TV channel.
Biden welcomed the deal, saying Netanyahu committed to supporting an “extended pause.” Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said he hoped it would eventually lead to a permanent ceasefire and “serious talks” on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
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 broke into southern Israel, killing at least 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking hostages.
Weeks of Israeli air strikes in Gaza, followed by a ground invasion, have killed more than 11,000 Palestinians, 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 says the number has risen sharply since then. Some 2,700 people are missing and believed buried under rubble.
Israel says it has killed thousands of Hamas fighters, though it has presented no evidence for its count.
Hamas, meanwhile, will have a chance to regroup. 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.
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.
Outside Khan Younis, workers dug a mass grave for 111 bodies that Israeli authorities handed over after troops took them from Shifa Hospital and other parts of northern Gaza. Israeli troops had taken the bodies apparently for DNA analysis amid the search for hostages in the north.
Strikes also levelled buildings in the Nusseirat refugee camp and the city of Deir al-Balah in central Gaza. The city’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital said 128 bodies were brought in overnight after strikes.
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 Wednesday.
Over 1.7 million Palestinians have been displaced in the war. Many, if not most, will be unable to return home because of the vast damage and the continued presence of Israeli troops in the north. The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, said that more than 1 million Palestinians were seeking shelter in 156 of its facilities in Gaza.
The ceasefire deal promises an increase of aid to the south, bringing some relief to hundreds of thousands who have struggled to find food and water. Israel has barred imports to Gaza since the start of the war, except for a trickle of aid entering through Egypt’s Rafah crossing.
A Qatari statement said the ceasefire would allow a “larger number of humanitarian convoys and relief aid,” including fuel. But it gave no details on actual quantities.
Humanitarian aid groups operating in Gaza criticized the ceasefire, saying the truce was too short and the Rafah crossing’s capacity was insufficient to deliver enough aid to meet the urgent demand.
The Palestine Red Crescent aid group and U.N. teams evacuated 190 wounded and sick people, their companions and some medical teams from Shifa Hospital to hospitals in southern Gaza, Wednesday, a Red Crescent spokesperson said.
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.
But they could also find themselves divided as some hostages are freed and others not.
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?” she asked. “No matter which way it happens, there will still be families that will remain worried and sad and angry.”