International mediators were working to secure a second extension to the truce in the Israel-Palestinian conflict as the pause in fighting was set to expire within hours.
The crunch talks continued on Wednesday – the final day of a two-day extension of a truce in the Gaza war – over conditions to extend the deal, which is set to end early on Thursday.
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The negotiations, involving Israel and Hamas as well as key mediator Qatar with the United States and Egypt, were focused on the length of the extension and the exchange of captives for prisoners.
Late on Wednesday, the Israeli army confirmed that two Israeli captives had been freed in Gaza, in advance of the expected release of 10 others. Thirty Palestinian women and children were to be released from Israeli jails.
“The consensus now is that the truce will be extended” for another few days, said Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra.
But “the most complex and difficult part of the negotiations” aimed at bringing the war in Gaza to an end permanently lies ahead, he said.
Those more advanced negotiations are expected to revolve around the release of Israeli soldiers held in Gaza, Ahelbarra said, explaining that Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad may seek to secure the release of all Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.
“The Israelis have made it clear that there’s absolutely no way they will go for that,” he said.
While Israel has welcomed the release of many captives, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasised on Wednesday that his forces will resume the campaign to eliminate Hamas.
“After this phase of returning our abductees is exhausted, will Israel return to fighting? So my answer is an unequivocal yes,” he said. “There is no way we are not going back to fighting until the end.”
The initial four-day truce began on Friday. Despite some minor clashes, it was then renewed for two more days.
In that time, Hamas released 81 captives, mostly Israeli nationals, who were taken during an attack on southern Israel on October 7.
In exchange, Israel released 180 Palestinian prisoners, including women and children, many of whom were kept in administrative detention for years without charge.
At the same time, Israel has arrested almost as many Palestinians as the prisoners it has released.
‘Epic humanitarian catastrophe’
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the parties to seek a “true humanitarian ceasefire” in order to address the “epic” humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, wrought by weeks of relentless Israeli assaults that have displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and a siege that has slashed access to necessities such as food, fuel, water and electricity.
“In a matter of weeks, a far greater number of children have been killed by [the] Israeli military operations in Gaza than the total number of children killed in any year by any party to a conflict since I’ve been secretary-general,” Guterres told the UN Security Council on Wednesday.
“Over the past few days, the people in the occupied Palestine territories and Israel have finally seen a glimmer of hope and humanity in so much darkness.”
Speaking to the council about the extended truce, Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said the deal has allowed more “badly needed” humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip.
He said Qatar was eager to see the council take steps towards applying a “sustainable ceasefire”, and implementing measures to guarantee the flow of “sufficient humanitarian aid, and to secure the delivery thereof without any impediments”.
Al Jazeera’s Ahelbarra said that Hamas is looking for guarantees from the key parties of the Gaza truce, the Qataris and the Egyptians, that if they keep going with the exchange of prisoners, Israel will stop the bombardment of Gaza.
While Israel’s firm stance in favour of continuing the war in Gaza does provide leverage in negotiations, strong statements from all the leaders in the region about the need for a comprehensive settlement have put Israel under pressure, he added.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud called on the council to “live up to its responsibilities” and enforce a lasting ceasefire in Gaza.
“The danger is that if this … truce expires, that we will return to the killing at the scale that we have seen, which is unbearable,” he told reporters at UN headquarters.
“We are here to make a clear statement – that a truce is not enough. What is needed is a ceasefire,” he said.
>Israel had previously said it was willing to extend the truce by one day for every 10 captives freed by Hamas, and an Israeli official told the Reuters news agency on Wednesday that Israel believes Hamas has enough women and children held captive to extend the current truce by an additional two to three days.
The Wall Street Journal additionally reported that Israel was open to new negotiations over the release of men and soldiers “once all children and women are released”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking in Brussels on Wednesday, said he would work with the Israelis during an upcoming trip to Israel to see if the temporary ceasefire could be extended.
Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst, Marwan Bishara, said he believes Blinken will tell Israeli leaders during his visit to Tel Aviv that Washington cannot continue to support its war on Gaza “unconditionally”.
The US, which has provided staunch support for Israel throughout the war, has outlined a series of “red lines” for Israel, Bishara explained, including no Israeli “reoccupation” of Gaza, no ethnic cleansing in Gaza and no shrinking of the territory of Gaza.
Reporting from occupied East Jerusalem, Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan said there were “leaks coming out that there are negotiations between Israel and Hamas to release additional captives and extend the ceasefire” for five days.
If successful, the next phase of the truce and captives’ release will reportedly be based around five categories, he said, “Israeli captives; elderly men who are too old to be reservists; female soldiers; reservist soldiers; and then the bodies of Israelis who were killed before or during captivity.”
Ghazi Hamad, a member of Hamas’s political bureau, confirmed the group is ready to discuss the release of captured men and military personnel, as well as women and children.
“Now this point is on the table,” the Hamas official told Al Jazeera. “For the whole of captives, either military or civilians. We’re still discussing it with the mediators in order to reach a satisfying compromise.”