International mediators push for longer pause in Gaza for more hostage releases

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AMMAN, Jordan — As the humanitarian pause in combat in Gaza entered its fifth day Tuesday and more Israeli hostages were exchanged for Palestinian prisoners, international mediators pushed for an even longer break in the conflict.

The two sides have agreed to a 48-hour extension of the initial four-day pause in exchange for the release of 20 more Israeli hostages and 60 Palestinian prisoners. Aid organizations hope that the break will allow for the delivery of additional desperately needed supplies to the besieged Palestinian enclave, where the humanitarian situation is worsening as colder winter weather sets in.

Top U.S. officials headed to the region to work on extending the pause into something longer to preserve the rare break in the intense fighting that has transfixed the world and thrown the whole region into turmoil.

The United States also has made clear to Israel that when its campaign in Gaza resumes, it cannot be carried out with the same force that was seen so far in the northern half of the enclave, where more than half the buildings have been damaged or destroyed and most civilians have fled southward.

A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the White House, said that “it is extremely important” that the offensive that Israel has said will begin in southern Gaza after the pause must “be done in a way that is to a maximum extent not designed to produce significant displacement of persons.”

“Areas of deconfliction” in the south must include United Nations facilities and shelters and civilian infrastructure that are “immune from kinetic activity,” the official said.

In effort to stave off this resumption of hostilities, CIA Director William J. Burns went to Qatar on Tuesday to meet with his Israeli counterpart in hopes of brokering an expansive deal that would include several more days of quiet and the release of not just women and children held as hostages but also men and military personnel.

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meanwhile, is again to visit the region, where he is expected to push to maintain the flow of humanitarian assistance into Gaza, secure the release of more hostages and emphasize the need for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

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Qatar — the key mediator in the Israel-Hamas negotiations to date — also said it hopes that the humanitarian pause will be further extended and that the hostage releases would involve more than just women and children.

“The priority at this moment is civilian women and children,” said Majed Al Ansari, a spokesman for the Qatari Foreign Ministry. “Military men will come into discussion” after that, he said.

The United Nations, which has repeatedly expressed concern over the weeks of bombing and then ground combat in the densely populated Gaza Strip, also called for a full humanitarian cease-fire rather than just the current pause.

“The humanitarian situation in Gaza remains catastrophic and requires the urgent entry of additional aid and supplies in a smooth, predictable, and continuous manner to alleviate the unbearable suffering of Palestinians in Gaza,” Tor Wennesland, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said in a statement Tuesday.

Israel and Hamas have accused each other of violating the pause amid small skirmishes in northern Gaza, but, so far, the allegations do not appear to have threatened the agreement.

The Israel Defense Forces said that three explosive devices were detonated in the northern Gaza Strip near IDF forces and that shots were fired. A spokesman for Hamas’s military wing who uses the name Abu Obaida said that “as a result of a clear violation by the enemy of the truce agreement in northern Gaza today, there was field friction and our fighters dealt with this violation.”

Israel said Tuesday that it received a list of the first 10 hostages to be released under the extension deal and that families had been informed. No further details were provided. Israeli authorities also published a list of 50 Palestinian prisoners slated for release.

The combat pause has provided some respite from the relentless bombardment of Gaza, as well as relief for Israeli and Palestinian families whose loved ones either have been held hostage in Gaza or are imprisoned in Israel. But on the ground in Gaza, the pause has been overshadowed by the apparently inevitable return to war.

More than 13,300 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s retaliation since the Hamas-led attack inside Israel last month that left more than 1,200 people dead. Gaza residents have used the pause to try to scramble for warm clothes and supplies, visit devastated homes and recover bodies from the rubble-strewn streets.

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Hanaa Moeen, a 38-year-old mother of three from Gaza City who was sheltering in an apartment with six other families in the southern city of Rafah, said the only change during the pause was that she has been able to venture out onto the streets.

“Extending the cessation of war for two days is both good and painful, because we know that the war will return, and nothing has changed,” she said. “We are now in the winter season, facing difficulty in acquiring winter clothes and the need for heating.”

The pause has given her and her family time to ponder what comes next if they can survive the war, she said. “We do not know if we have a house to return to in Gaza City.”

In the north, Nahed Afif, 55, who was sheltering in a U.N.-run school in Gaza City, said that although some aid has reached the area during the pause, supplies still fall short of the “necessities of life.”

“Our desire is not just to extend the truce but to bring an end to the war entirely. I long to sleep in my bed in my house,” he said. “Even if it’s destroyed, I’d be content to sleep in a tent next to it,” he said, adding that Israeli tanks were blocking his way home.

Watching the waves roll in from the Mediterranean, Kefah Abu Safiyya said she came with her family to the beach for some peace and quiet and “to catch our breath, even if only for a little while.”

“This very short truce provides a brief respite, but what will happen afterward is uncertain. We seek a change of atmosphere, even if it lasts only for a few seconds,” she said. “We don’t know if we will live or become part of those being killed.”

Since the pause took effect Friday, Hamas has released 69 people it had taken hostage — 51 Israelis, including some holding dual citizen ship with other nations, and 18 foreign nationals. Only one American, 4-year-old Abigail Edan, was released; at least eight other Americans are believed to remain in captivity in Gaza.

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Israel has released 150 Palestinian prisoners. Under the truce agreement, Israel agreed to release three Palestinian prisoners in exchange for each Israeli hostage.

The most recent 11 hostages released, on Monday night, by Hamas were all women and children from Kibbutz Nir Oz, with 49 members of the tiny community of just 400 people still missing.

“The news this evening brings a sigh of relief to our community. However, we remain deeply concerned about our loved ones that are still held hostage,” said Osnat Peri, the head of the kibbutz. “We demand the return of all hostages, immediately, whatever it takes.”

Released hostages have described deteriorating conditions during their weeks of captivity, with thinning food rations and heavy bombing. Ronit Lubetzky, the director of the Ichilov Hospital children’s department, said in a news briefing Tuesday that the nine children the hospital had received had to undergo “complex” medical assessments and had suffered from poor nutrition during their captivity.

The list of the next group of Palestinians approved for release includes the prominent Palestinian activist Ahed al-Tamimi, 22, who was arrested this month over an Instagram post on charges of incitement. Her family has said the post was fake.

The list also includes Rita Murad, a 21-year-old computer science student arrested over several Instagram posts published Oct. 7, the day of the Hamas incursion into Israel. Most Palestinians released or slated for release have not been convicted of any crime and were awaiting trial, according to Jessica Montell, the executive director of the Israeli human rights organization HaMoked, although she added that Hamas should have released hostages “unconditionally.”

In a conversation Monday with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reiterated calls for Israel to increase aid to Gaza and for state and non-state actors to avoid expanding the war, according to a readout of the meeting published by the U.S. Department of Defense.

Morris reported from Berlin. Susannah George in Doha, Qatar; Sarah Dadouch in Beirut; Paul Schemm in London; and John Hudson and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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