Hamas militants late Tuesday released more Israeli hostages on the fifth day of an extended six-day truce in the Israel-Hamas war, with the Jewish state expected to soon free more Palestinian prisoners.
The Israeli military said 12 hostages who were held in Gaza, 10 Israelis and two foreign nationals, were driven to Israel. In turn, Israel was expected to free 30 Palestinian prisoners, 15 women and 15 young men, according to the Palestinian Prisoner’s Club, a semi-official organization.
In the first four days of the original truce agreement, Hamas released 50 Israeli hostages as of Monday night as well as 19 foreigners, mostly Thai farmworkers. Israel has so far freed 150 prisoners, before the truce was extended an additional two days.
The hostages were among about 240 people seized by Hamas gunmen during their rampage into southern Israel on October 7 in which they killed about 1,200 people. Israel, in its counter-offensive aimed at ending Hamas control of the Gaza Strip and its military leadership, has killed more than 15,000 people, according to the Hamas-controlled Gaza health ministry.
The truce has brought Gaza its first quiet after six weeks of intensive Israeli aerial bombardment and a ground offensive prompted by the Hamas attack.
The cease-fire had been set to expire overnight into Tuesday but both sides agreed to extend the pause to allow for the release of additional hostages held by Hamas and of Palestinian prisoners detained by Israel.
Whether it is extended beyond Wednesday is uncertain. Israel has said it will continue the cease-fire day by day if Hamas frees at least 10 Israeli hostages a day. But now there are fewer women and children still in captivity, and additional negotiating may be needed to free at least some Israeli men for the first time.
With the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, a narrow enclave along the Mediterranean Sea, more than two-thirds of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have lost their homes, with thousands of families forced to sleep in makeshift shelters with only the belongings they could carry with them from their homes.
Qatar helped negotiate the extension, while the United States, which has been calling for a truce as long as hostages are being released, said it welcomed the fifth and sixth days of the cessation in fighting.
U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement that the halt in warfare has “enabled a significant surge in additional humanitarian assistance to the innocent civilians who are suffering across the Gaza Strip.” He said the U.S. will not stop its diplomatic efforts until all hostages held by Hamas are freed.
“We’d certainly like to see even that extension extended further until all the hostages are released,” said John Kirby, director of strategic communications for the National Security Council. “That’s really the goal here, to get all the hostages home with their families where they belong. And you know, however long that could take.”
A fourth swap of hostages held by Hamas for Palestinian prisoners concluded late Monday, with the Israel Defense Forces saying that 11 hostages held by Hamas had been released and Israel’s prison authority saying 33 Palestinians freed.
While the extended cease-fire held out the prospect of a longer truce, Israel has remained adamant in its stated goal of crushing Hamas’ military capabilities and ending its 16-year rule over Gaza.
The United States has called on Israel to avoid “significant further displacement” of people in Gaza as it turns the focus of its campaign against Hamas from the northern part of the Gaza Strip toward the southern end.
A senior U.S. official briefing reporters said the message has been communicated to the Israeli government, and that the Israeli military campaign needs to avoid attacks on power, water and humanitarian sites in southern Gaza.
Israel has told people to leave northern Gaza for the south as it mainly focused the initial part of its offensive against Hamas in the north.
The United Nations says an estimated 1.8 million people, or about 80% of Gaza’s population, are displaced within Gaza with 1.1 million sheltering in overcrowded U.N. facilities.
Hamas, a U.S.-designated terror group, and other allied militants could still be holding more than 160 hostages, enough to potentially extend the cease-fire for more than two weeks.
But the hostage group includes a number of Israeli soldiers, and the militants could make stiffer demands for their release.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who attended a NATO meeting in Brussels Monday, will head to Israel and the West Bank late Wednesday, according to a senior State Department official.
Blinken has visited Israel multiple times on his previous two trips to the region since the Israel-Hamas war began.
In his meetings in the Middle East, Blinken “will stress the need to sustain the increased flow of humanitarian assistance to Gaza, secure the release of all hostages, and improve protections for civilians in Gaza,” a senior State Department official said on background.
Analysts say the widely welcomed pause is unlikely to bring an end to this complex — and for both sides, existential — conflict.
“There are two separate problems,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “The long-term end to the fighting is going to require the dismantlement of Hamas — probably not in any realistic way the complete elimination of all of its fighters or capabilities or ideas — but the top leadership has to go. Hamas’ ability to rule Gaza has to go. And I don’t see that as having been changed in any way, shape or form by the current pause in the fighting.”
China said Monday its top diplomat, Wang Yi, will preside over a Wednesday United Nations Security Council meeting focused on the Israel-Hamas conflict.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters that China hopes the talks would lead to a prolonged cease-fire and an end to the fighting and alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
VOA State Department bureau chief Nike Ching and White House correspondent Anita Powell contributed to this article.