Hamas on Thursday released eight Israeli hostages in Gaza and Israel was expected to free 30 Palestinian prisoners as negotiators sought to extend a ceasefire again.
The Gaza ceasefire was again hanging in the balance, with the Israeli military poised to resume fighting if Hamas did not present a list, acceptable to Israel, of 10 hostages to be set free on Friday.
Hamas has also put its fighters on high alert for a resumption of fighting.
The hostage releases began when two women were freed by Hamas. Israel identified them as Mia Schem (21), who was seized at a dance party along with many of the other hostages abducted into Gaza, and Amit Soussana (40). Ms Schem also holds French nationality.
The Palestinian militant group Hamas then freed a group of six more hostages, transferring them to the Red Cross, the Israeli military said. Television images showed some young women among the group walking toward ambulances once they reached Israeli territory.
The six freed hostages comprised four adults and two teenagers, who are both Bedouin Arab citizens of Israel, according to the Israeli prime minister’s office.
While Israel required Hamas to release 10 hostages daily to continue the truce, a Qatari foreign ministry spokesperson said only eight would be released on Thursday while Israel would release 30 Palestinians.
Israeli officials had signalled openness to accepting eight rather than 10 hostages in Thursday’s release roster. They said that Hamas on Wednesday had released 12 hostages considered Israeli including two Israeli-Russian women whose liberty the Palestinian faction described as a goodwill gesture to Moscow.
Those two women could be counted as part of Thursday’s batch, Israeli officials suggested. “The framework deal says ‘around 10 [hostages]’ a day,” foreign minister Eli Cohen told Israel’s Army Radio, saying Israelis with dual citizenship were considered to fulfil the terms.
Hamas also released four Thai hostages on Wednesday.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken, in Israel during his third visit to the Middle East since the war began, delivered a sharp message to Israeli leaders, urging them not to resume their assault on the densely populated Gaza Strip before they prepare a plan to protect civilians, and calling on them to comply with international humanitarian law.
Israeli leaders made it clear to him that the fighting will resume. “We are going to fight Hamas until we prevail – no matter how long it takes,” defence minister Yoav Gallant told him. “We will continue this war until we win, defeat Hamas, deprive it of its governing and military capabilities and bring back all the hostages.”
Mr Blinken, in talks with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, condemned extremist violence against Palestinian civilians in the occupied West Bank, and promised to continue to insist on full accountability for those responsible.
The hostages are from a group of some 240 people seized by Hamas gunmen in southern Israel on October 7th, when 1,200 people were killed. More than 15,000 residents of Gaza have been killed in Israeli attacks since then, according to the Hamas-controlled health ministry.
The Israeli war cabinet had decided in the early hours of Thursday morning to renew the war in Gaza after rejecting the Hamas list of hostages to be released, which included three dead captives. But 10 minutes before the ceasefire deadline expired at 7am (local time), after Israeli units in Gaza began moving from defensive to offensive positions, war was averted after Hamas presented an amended list, deemed acceptable to Israel, comprising only women and children.
Ultimately, the deciding factor for the war cabinet was the desire to secure the release of as many hostages as possible before reopening hostilities, amid recognition that freeing additional hostages will be far more difficult once the fighting resumes.
The Israeli medical teams treating the returnees report significant weight loss among all of them and varying levels of trauma. One hostage was reportedly held captive at the home of a doctor, another at the home of a teacher.
A Thai national who was freed told the Israeli authorities that Hamas had beaten the Israeli captives, in some cases with electric cables. “We ate very little, a single pita per day. Sometimes there were cans of tuna that four of us shared. Sometimes there was a piece of cheese. They let us shower once.”
Nineteen Thai nationals who were kidnapped on October 7th have been released in the last few days, 13 more remain in captivity.
Three people, including a pregnant woman, were killed and seven wounded in a shooting attack at an entrance to Jerusalem on Thursday morning, when two Hamas gunmen opened fire at a crowd waiting at a bus stop.
The gunmen, brothers from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sur Baher, were shot and killed at the scene. – Additional reporting: Reuters