With deadline looming, diplomats seek to extend Gaza truce; more hostages, prisoners are freed – Orange County Register

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By WAFAA SHURAFA, JACK JEFFERY and LEE KEATH

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip — Hamas and Israel released more hostages and prisoners under terms of a fragile cease-fire that held for a fifth day Tuesday as international mediators in Qatar worked to extend the truce. The United States urged Israel to better protect Palestinian civilians in Gaza if it follows through on its promise to resume the war.

In the latest swap since the cease-fire began Friday, Israel said 10 of its citizens and two Thai nationals were freed by Hamas and had been returned to Israel. Soon after, Israel released 30 Palestinian prisoners. The truce is due to end after one more exchange Wednesday night.

For the first time, Israel and Hamas blamed each other for an exchange of fire between troops and militants in northern Gaza. There was no indication it would endanger the truce, which has enabled humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza.

CIA director William Burns and David Barnea, who heads Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, were in Qatar, a key mediator with Hamas, to discuss extending the cease-fire and releasing more hostages, a diplomat said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was set to visit the region this week.

Israel has vowed to resume the war to end Hamas’ 16-year rule in Gaza and crush its military capabilities once it’s clear that no more hostages will be freed under the deal. That would almost certainly require expanding its ground offensive from northern Gaza to the south, where most of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million is now crowded. It’s unclear where they would go if Israel does so as Egypt has refused to accept refugees and Israel has sealed its border.

The Biden administration told Israel it must avoid “significant further displacement” of and mass casualties among Palestinian civilians if it resumes its offensive, and that it must operate with more precision in southern Gaza than it has in the north, according to U.S. officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House.

Hamas and other militants still hold about 160 hostages out of 240 seized in their Oct. 7 assault into southern Israel that ignited the war. Israel has said it is willing to extend the cease-fire by one day for every 10 additional hostages that Hamas releases, according to the deal brokered by the Qatar, Egypt and the U.S. But Hamas is expected to make much higher demands for the release of captive Israeli soldiers.

The latest group of Israeli hostages freed from Gaza — nine women and a 17-year-old — was flown to hospitals in Israel, the Israeli military said. The hostages were handed over on a street crowded with cheering people, AP video showed. The 17-year-old girl could be seen walking alongside Hamas militants to a waiting Red Cross Jeep with her small, white-haired dog named Bella.

Tuesday’s hostage release brought to 60 the number of Israelis freed during the truce. An additional 21 hostages — 19 Thais, one Filipino and one Russian-Israeli — have been released in separate negotiations since the truce began.

Before the truce, Hamas released four Israeli hostages, and the Israeli army rescued one. Two other hostages were found dead in Gaza.

The latest swap brought to 180 the number of Palestinian women and teenagers freed from Israeli prisons. Most have been teenagers accused of throwing stones and firebombs during confrontations with Israeli forces. Several released women were convicted by Israeli military courts of attempting to carry out deadly attacks.

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