Palestinian Territories – Hopes rose Tuesday that Hamas could free dozens of hostages from the war-torn Gaza Strip after the Israeli prime minister said a ceasefire agreement was the “right decision” and the militant group’s leader and key mediator Qatar said the deal is imminent.
The announcements are the most optimistic yet for a potential breakthrough in the conflict that has raged for more than six weeks and left thousands dead on both sides.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a meeting of his cabinet that accepting the agreement to release the hostages taken in the October 7 Hamas attacks was a “difficult decision, but the right decision.”
Netanyahu, who has vowed to destroy Hamas, said US President Joe Biden had helped “improve the framework presented before you… to include more hostages at a lower price.”
“The entire security establishment fully supports this.”
Despite talks of a temporary truce, fighting continued in the bloodiest war in Gaza’s history, sparked by the October 7 attack in which Hamas attackers killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and captured about 240 hostages.
In retaliation, Israel launched a ruthless bombing campaign and ground offensive in Gaza. According to the Hamas government, more than 14,100 people were killed in the war, including almost 6,000 children and nearly 4,000 women.
The families of the hostages have demanded that Israel insist on the return of all those detained, and the Religious Zionist Party, part of Netanyahu’s coalition government, has expressed opposition to the deal, denouncing it as “bad” for Israel’s security, hostages and soldiers.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad sources, which also participated in the October 7 attacks, told AFP on condition of anonymity that the tentative agreement would include a five-day truce, including a complete ceasefire on the ground and an end to Israeli air operations over Gaza, except in the north , where they stayed for only six hours a day.
Under the agreement, which sources say is subject to change, between 50 and 100 Israeli and binational civilians will be released in exchange for about 300 Palestinian women and children currently detained in Israeli prisons.
The agreement requires the support of Israel’s war cabinet, security cabinet and cabinet. The first two meetings were held, but their results have not yet been made public.
Hopes for a publishing deal have been rising since Qatar on Sunday said only “minor” practical issues remained.
Ahead of the meetings, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said: “We are close to reaching a ceasefire agreement.”
Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed Al-Ansari said “we are very optimistic and hopeful” and told reporters: “We are the closest we have ever been to reaching an agreement.”
Biden, who does not support a complete ceasefire, said a temporary truce is “very close now.”
“We will be able to bring some of the hostages home soon,” he said. “But I don’t want to go into details because nothing is done until it’s done.”
The BRICS group of countries, including Russia, India and China, called for an “immediate, lasting and lasting humanitarian truce leading to a cessation of hostilities” in Gaza, with the aim of developing a common response to the conflict.
Rafah resident Hamza Abdel Razeq said the ceasefire would bring respite to Gazans who have endured Israeli bombardments and an expanding ground offensive.
“People are really suffering,” he told AFP. “If they reach a five-day truce now, I believe it will pave the way for longer truces or even a complete ceasefire.”
Another resident, Mahmoud Abu Najm, added: “We pray to God for the success of this action because people are in an unbearable situation.”
Large parts of Gaza have been razed to the ground by thousands of airstrikes, and the territory is under siege with minimal food, water and fuel allowed into it.
According to Hamas and Islamic Jihad sources, the proposed deal would also allow up to 300 trucks carrying food and medical aid to enter Gaza.
Israel vowed to continue its offensive, vowing to crush Hamas and secure the release of the hostages.
Meanwhile, the Israeli military said airstrikes hit “approximately 250” Hamas targets last day, destroying three underground shafts in the Jabalia area that it said it had completely surrounded.
She added that two soldiers were killed in the northern Gaza Strip.
In the occupied West Bank, the Israeli army killed one Palestinian in Nablus, the health ministry said.
In southern Lebanon, where exchanges of fire between Israel and Hamas ally Hezbollah have raised fears of a wider conflict, Israeli attacks killed eight people on Tuesday, including two journalists.
In Iraq, the Pentagon said, a U.S. strike killed multiple Iran-backed militiamen after they fired a short-range missile at U.S. and allied forces in the country.
Medics and patients have been increasingly drawn into the fighting as Israel has expanded its operations into the northern Gaza Strip.
The Hamas-led health ministry said Israel besieged and struck an Indonesian hospital in Jabalia on Monday, killing dozens, but there was no independent confirmation of the death toll.
The Israeli army later said its soldiers “directly targeted” the source of the fire at an Indonesian hospital.
On Monday, 28 premature babies were taken to Egypt for treatment from Gaza’s largest hospital, Al-Shifa. The World Health Organization said on Tuesday that three other people remained in the southern Gaza Strip.
She reported that two children died before the evacuation.
The Indonesian hospital is located near Gaza’s largest Jabalia refugee camp, which has been the site of intense Israeli bombing.
A health ministry official said about 400 patients were still in hospital and 2,000 people were seeking shelter.
On Monday, about 200 people were evacuated from the hospital and taken by bus to the relative safety of a hospital in Khan Yunis, southern Gaza.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said three doctors, including two employed by the organization, were killed in an Israeli attack on Al-Awda Hospital in the Jabalia refugee camp.
Israel says Hamas uses medical facilities to hide fighters and as a base for operations, making them legitimate military targets, while insisting it does everything possible to limit harm to civilians.
However, criticism of Israel’s conduct in the war from international agencies and some governments has intensified, and protests have taken place around the world.
The WHO said it was “appalled” by the Indonesian hospital strike, calling it just one of 164 documented attacks on health care facilities and workers since the war began.
Meanwhile, the UN Children’s Agency has warned that fuel shortages and deteriorating sanitation conditions in Gaza could become a “perfect storm for tragedy” as diseases spread.