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Israel and Hamas extend ceasefire to keep trading hostages for prisoners

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Israel and Hamas agreed to continue a fragile truce for at least another day to keep trading hostages in Gaza for Palestinian prisoners, as US secretary of state Antony Blinken landed in the region to try to facilitate the release of more captives.

Qatar, which is mediating the pause in hostilities, said the two sides had “reached an agreement to extend the humanitarian pause in the Gaza Strip for an additional day under the existing conditions”.

The agreement, announced by both sides minutes before the temporary ceasefire was set to expire, came after Hamas sent Israel a list of women and children it would free on Thursday. About 100 people have been released by Hamas and more than 200 Palestinian prisoners by Israel over the past week.

“This process is producing results,” Blinken said on Thursday as he met Israeli president Isaac Herzog. “It’s important and we hope it can continue.”

The 24-hour extension was less than what mediators had been hoping to secure, underscoring the agreement’s fragility as Hamas appeared to be scrambling to locate remaining women and children held in Gaza to release to Israel.

The militant group initially offered to release seven women and children, as well as the bodies of three who had died. Israel rejected the offer but accepted a compromise that could lead to up to 10 hostages being freed on Thursday.

“People should read it as a positive sign,” said an official briefed on the talks. “It was the perfect excuse for Israelis to go back to war because Hamas wasn’t able to produce a list of 10 women and children.”

Mediators hope they can prolong the agreement by another day if Hamas is able to locate remaining women and children held by other groups in Gaza, which is controlled by the militant group.

“Now it’s working on the next phase of the pause,” the official said. “The mediators want to get another extra day and then work to extend it again. There seems to be a genuine willingness to extend by both sides.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces pressure internationally, and domestically from the families of hostages, to prolong the pauses. But he also faces resistance from far-right members of his governing coalition who oppose any new deals with Hamas.

Netanyahu said on Wednesday that Israel would resume its military campaign “after completing this stage of the return of our hostages”, adding: “There is no situation in which we do not go back to fighting until the end.”

Blinken was scheduled to meet the prime minister on Thursday and urge him to agree to extensions to facilitate the release of more hostages and allow more aid into besieged Gaza.

The brokered pause in hostilities has survived several stumbles, including one over a delay in delivering aid into the territory and another that involved a brief exchange of fire between Israeli troops and Hamas fighters in the strip.

Humanitarian aid has provided relief to more than 2mn Palestinians trapped in Gaza, where Israel’s aerial bombardment and ground invasion has killed more than 14,800 people, according to Palestinian officials, and reduced much of the enclave to rubble.

The war erupted after Hamas’s devastating October 7 attack on southern Israel killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials. Hamas and other militants also seized about 240 hostages. 

The original deal, which came into effect a week ago, focused on the release of women and children held in Gaza. In return, Israel agreed to pause its offensives on Gaza, free Palestinian women and children from its prisons and allow more aid into the strip.

There have been discussions about a broader hostage deal that could require Israel to commit to a more lasting halt to its offensive and release large numbers of Palestinian prisoners, including those convicted of murder.

In return, Hamas and other militant groups would release additional hostages from Gaza, potentially including dozens of Israeli soldiers and reservists being held.

The families of the hostages have pushed the government to “pay any price” to get their relatives out of Gaza, and the international community, including US President Joe Biden, has said they want to see the pauses in the fighting extended.

Hamas freed 16 people on Wednesday night, including 10 Israelis, two Israeli-Russian dual-nationals and four Thai citizens, according to Qatar’s foreign ministry. Among the 30 released from Israeli jails on Wednesday were Ahed Tamimi, a famous Palestinian protester, jailed for a Facebook post her family denies she made.

The extension came just as a shooting attack in west Jerusalem left three people dead and a dozen others taken to hospital, the Magen David Adom ambulance service said. Two men believed to be the attackers were “neutralised”, the Israeli police said.

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