More captives are freed as Israel and Hamas agree to extend their truce in Gaza
TEL AVIV, Israel — The last official day of a temporary truce between Israel and Hamas on Monday was likely to see the release of dozens more captives, as signals from both sides in the Gaza conflict suggested the humanitarian pause might be extended and more people freed.
After Sunday night's exchange of another 17 hostages by Hamas for an additional 39 Palestinians jailed by Israel — the third of four such daily swaps agreed to as part of the original cease-fire deal — Hamas issued a statement saying it was "seeking to extend the truce after the end of the four-day period" that began on Friday.
In a video posted later, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was also open to the idea of extending the pause by 24 hours for every 10 hostages released. In return, Israel would release up to a total of 150 more Palestinians, he said. Previously, Israel had said it could prolong the deal for up to 10 days in total if Hamas keeps freeing some of the around 240 captives it seized in last month's attack on Israel that killed about 1,200 people.
U.S. President Biden also said Sunday that his administration is working with Qatar, which brokered the truce, and other negotiators to extend the pause.
So far, 3 Palestinians released for every Israeli set free
Among those released so far are 17 Thai laborers seized in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, as well as one Filipino. A dual Israeli-Russian citizen was freed on Sunday after what Hamas described in a statement as the "efforts of Russian President Vladimir Putin and in appreciation of the Russian position in support of the Palestinian cause."
In seven weeks of Israeli airstrikes and ground assaults in Gaza, more than 13,300 Palestinians have been killed, mostly women and youth, according to Palestinian health officials. The health ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip reports a higher death toll, but it does not distinguish between civilians and militants.
So far, the daily swaps have proceeded on a ratio of three Palestinians for every Israeli set free, an arrangement likely to continue if the deal is prolonged.
Asked about a possible extension of the deal, Michael Barsinai, from Kibbutz Be'eri, one of the hardest hit Israeli communities in the Oct. 7 attack, told NPR, "As long as we get hostages back that's fine."
"We remember all those that are still there," he said.
One hostage, Elma Avraham, 84, who was released by Hamas on Sunday, was flown by helicopter directly from Gaza due to a serious medical condition, Israeli media reports. She remains in an intensive care unit "and her life is still in danger," according to The Times of Israel.
Other hostages report losing weight during their 50 days in captivity, surviving mostly on bread and rice. Some slept on rows of chairs and many were held underground.
Pause in fighting enables delivery of humanitarian aid
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in its latest update, says the temporary cease-fire "has been largely maintained."
"This pause has enabled the U.N. to enhance the delivery of assistance into and across Gaza," it said.
OCHA said it was not immediately clear how many aid trucks got into Gaza on Sunday, but that on the previous day, it was around 200.
But the result of Israel's relentless military campaign in Gaza in the lead up to the pause has been described by the agency in desperate terms. It says nearly 80% of the territory's 2.2 million have been internally displaced as a result of the seven weeks of fighting.
Since the assault on Gaza began in the wake of the Hamas attack, Israel's military has focused operations in the north of the territory, warning Gazans to flee south to avoid being injured or killed.
It said that overcrowding and poor sanitation at shelters administered by UNRWA, the U.N. relief agency that oversees the Palestinian territories, have caused "significant increases in some communicable diseases and conditions such as diarrhea, acute respiratory infections, skin infections and hygiene-related conditions like lice."
In a post on X (formerly Twitter), UNRWA said, "Aid distribution south of Wadi #Gaza has been accelerated over the past 4 days including water, food, medicine, blankets & more."
It says the Gaza Strip has been under an electricity blackout since Israeli authorities cut power, and fuel reserves to the territory's sole power plant are depleted. The supply of potable water in Gaza's south, part of which comes by way of two pipelines from Israel, has continued, OCHA says, while UNRWA was getting fuel supplies to help run two seawater desalination plants that also supply the south.
Meanwhile, citing the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, OCHA says the market price of vegetables has surged 32%, with wheat and flour up 65%. The price of mineral water, it said, had doubled since the conflict began.
NPR's Brian Mann in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.
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