Hamas is willing to further extend a truce for hostage and prisoner exchanges, a source close to the group said Thursday, and the United States urged Israel to set up safe zones for Gaza civilians as a pause in their deadly war neared expiry.
International pressure has risen for a lasting halt to the war, sparked by deadly Hamas attacks on Israel that prompted it to mount a devastating assault on the Gaza Strip.
As the latest group of Israeli hostages was released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, a source close to the Islamist group said it was willing to extend the truce that has paused weeks of deadly fighting and enabled aid to reach Gaza civilians. Israel had yet to respond.
With the current truce nearing expiry early Friday following a seven-day pause, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged an extension after meeting with leaders in Israel and the occupied West Bank.
“Clearly, we want to see this process continue to move forward,” he told reporters in Tel Aviv. “We want an eighth day and beyond.”
Israel “must put in place humanitarian civilian protection plans that minimise further casualties of innocent Palestinians”, he said, “including by clearly and precisely designating areas and places in southern and central Gaza, where they can be safe and out of the line of fire”.
A source close to Hamas, who asked not to be named because they were not authorised to speak to the media, told AFP the Islamist movement was “willing to extend the truce”.
“The mediators are currently making strong, intense and continuous efforts for an additional day in the truce and then working to extend it again for other days,” the source said.
International bodies have called for more time to allow medical supplies, food, and fuel into Gaza after fierce combat and bombardments sparked by Hamas’s bloody October 7 attacks on Israel.
“We have seen over the last week the very positive development of hostages coming home, being reunited with their families,” Blinken said earlier at a meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Tel Aviv.
“It’s also enabled an increase in humanitarian assistance to go to innocent civilians in Gaza who need it desperately. So this process is producing results. It’s important, and we hope that it can continue.”
He later told Netanyahu it was “imperative” to protect civilians in southern Gaza “before any military operations there”.
Before the truce, Israeli ground and air forces had pounded Gaza, forcing an estimated 1.7 million people — around 80 percent of the Hamas-run territory’s population — to leave their homes and limiting the entry of food, water, medicine and fuel, according to the UN.
The initial four-day truce has been extended for three days following work by international mediators, led by Qatar.
Israel has however vowed to continue with its offensive to destroy Hamas once the truce process has run its course.
“We swore… to eliminate Hamas, and nothing will stop us,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video released by his office, after meeting with Blinken.
Hamas freed two Israeli women hostages in the latest round of exchanges under the existing truce, followed by six more hostages later in the evening, according to Israeli authorities.
Qatari officials mediating in the conflict said those eight people included nationals of Mexico, Russia and Uruguay.
Two others, Russian-Israeli dual citizens, were released on Wednesday night, as part of the group of 10 scheduled for Thursday.
In exchange, 30 Palestinian prisoners were released from Israeli jails, prison authorities said, including 23 minors and seven women.
Since the truce began on November 24, 80 Israeli hostages and 240 Palestinian prisoners have been released.
More than 20 foreigners, most of them Thais living in Israel, have been freed outside the scope of the agreement.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office named the first two hostages released Thursday as French-Israeli dual national Mia Shem, 21, and Amit Soussana, 40.
Shem tearfully hugged her mother Keren and her brother as she arrived at an Israeli air base following her release, video distributed by the Israel government’s press office showed.
Keren Shem had called on world leaders to help free her “baby” in a press conference on October 17, days after the Hamas attacks.
Fighting began on October 7 when Hamas broke through Gaza’s militarised border into Israel, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping about 240, according to Israeli authorities.
Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas and unleashed an air and ground military campaign that the Hamas government says has killed more than 15,000 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians.
“We are afraid that the truce will end, so the problems and the bombings will start again,” Gaza City resident Mohamad Naasan told AFPTV on Thursday.
“I hope that the truce resumes… so peace prevails, and we all go back home.”
The violence in Gaza has also raised tensions in the West Bank, where nearly 240 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers or settlers since October 7, according to the Ramallah-based Palestinian health ministry.
Only hours after the latest truce extension, Islamist group Hamas claimed responsibility for a shooting in Jerusalem Thursday that killed three people and called for an “escalation of the resistance”.
The two gunmen, who police said were from annexed east Jerusalem, were shot dead at the scene, a bus stop in the western part of the city.
Separately, two Israeli soldiers were slightly injured in a ramming attack on a checkpoint in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, the army said, adding the assailant had also been “shot and neutralised”.
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