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Hamas open to truce extension as expiry nears

TEL AVIV - A truce between Israel and Hamas entered its final hours on Friday as more hostages were freed from Gaza in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

The militant group said it was willing to extend the truce further, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for the pause to continue.

But there was no sign early on Friday morning of whether the two sides would reach terms to extend the halt in fighting for an eighth day, and Blinken also used a visit to Israel to urge that any resumption of military operations protect Palestinian civilians.

The truce, due to expire early on Friday local time, has paused fighting that began on October 7 when Hamas militants broke through Gaza's militarised border into Israel.

The surprise attack killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and militants kidnapped about 240, according to Israeli authorities.

Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas in response and unleashed an air and ground military campaign in Gaza that the Hamas government says has killed more than 15,000 people, also mostly civilians.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Israel to set up safe zones for Gaza civilians
POOL/AFP | SAUL LOEB

Since the start of a truce brokered by Qatar, 80 Israeli hostages have been freed in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners.

More than 20 foreigners, most of them Thais living in Israel, have been freed outside the scope of the agreement.

Overnight, six more Israelis, some holding dual nationality, were freed, hours after two women were released.

That brought the total freed Thursday to eight, less than the 10 hostages a day the truce deal requires Hamas to release. A source close to the militant group said it was counting two Russian-Israeli women released on Wednesday in the seventh batch.

The release brought relief for Keren Shem, whose daughter Mia was among those freed. The family released footage showing Keren weeping with joy as she was informed by phone of her daughter's imminent freedom.

"Mia is coming back," she cried out.

 

- 'We want an eighth day' -

 

Not long after the hostages arrived in Israel, the country's prison service said another 30 Palestinian prisoners -- 23 minors and seven women -- had been freed. 

After meeting leaders in Israel and the occupied West Bank, Blinken said Washington wants "to see this process continue to move forward."

"We want an eighth day and beyond."

A source close to Hamas said the group backed another extension and that "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."

Israeli troops gather stand atop a tank on the border with the Gaza Strip
AFP | GIL COHEN-MAGEN

Israel has made clear it sees the truce as a temporary pause to secure the release of hostages, and that it plans to resume fighting.

"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.

But his government has come under increasing pressure to account for how it will protect civilians in the territory, which is under blockade, with no way for people to escape.

Blinken warned that any resumed military operation by Israel "must put in place humanitarian civilian protection plans that minimise further casualties of innocent Palestinians".

Specifically, Israel must "clearly and precisely" designate areas "in southern and central Gaza, where they can be safe and out of the line of fire", he said.

International bodies have called for more time to get medical supplies, food and fuel into Gaza, where an estimated 1.7 million people have been forced from their homes.

The truce has allowed people to return to the ruins of their homes to pick through the rubble for remaining belongings, but also provided a sense of safety after weeks of daily bombardment.

"We are afraid that the truce will end, so the problems and the bombings will start again," Gaza City resident Mohamad Naasan told AFP on Thursday.

"I hope that the truce resumes... so peace prevails, and we all go back home."

 

- Report: Israel had intelligence on attack -

 

The pause in fighting has not tempered violence elsewhere though.

On Thursday morning, two gunman opened fire at a bus stop in Jerusalem, killing three people in an attack claimed by Hamas.

The gunmen, who police said were from annexed east Jerusalem, were shot dead at the scene.

Separately, two Israeli soldiers were lightly 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".

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.

Israel: cost of the war against Hamas
AFP | Olivia BUGAULT, Laurence SAUBADU

The New York Times reported overnight that Israeli authorities were aware Hamas was planning a major assault, and had obtained a blueprint for the attack, which the group appears to have largely followed on October 7.

The newspaper said the plan called for a barrage of rockets, followed by efforts to knock out surveillance, and then a wave of militants to pour into Israel -- all elements of the October 7 attack.

Intelligence and military officials however dismissed the plan as aspirational, even after a signals analyst warned the group had carried out a training exercise in line with the plan, according to the report.

burs-sah/kma

By Adel Zaanoun With Leon Bruneau In Tel Aviv

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