Young surfers walk along the beach as a three-day cease-fire between Israel and members of Hamas holds for the release of prisoners and hostages on November 26, 2023 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
The truce between Israel and Hamas entered its final 24 hours on Monday, with the militant group saying it was willing to extend the pause after it freed more hostages, including a four-year-old orphaned by its attack.
The pause that began Friday has seen dozens of hostages freed, with over 100 Palestinian prisoners released by Israel in return.
Attention now has turned to whether the truce will be extended before its scheduled end early on Tuesday morning.
“That’s my goal, that’s our goal, to keep this pause going beyond tomorrow so that we can continue to see more hostages come out and surge more humanitarian relief into those in need in Gaza,” US President Joe Biden said Sunday.
He said he would like the fighting to be paused for “as long as prisoners keep coming out.”
“I get a sense that all the players in the region are looking for a way to end this so the hostages are all released and… Hamas is completely no longer in control of Gaza.”
Hamas has signalled its willingness to extend the truce, with a source telling AFP the group told mediators they were open to prolonging it by “two to four days”.
“The resistance believes it is possible to ensure the release of 20 to 40 Israeli prisoners” in that time, the source close to the movement said.
Under the truce, 50 hostages held by the militants were to be freed over four days in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners. A built-in mechanism extends it if at least 10 Israeli captives are released each extra day.
One potential complicating factor is the fact that some hostages are believed to be held by groups other than Hamas.
Israel faces enormous pressure from the families of hostages, as well as allies, to extend the truce to secure more releases.
“It would be good, helpful and necessary” to extend the truce until all hostages, who include French nationals, are freed, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told BFMTV on Sunday.
Three successive days of hostage releases have buoyed spirits in Israel, with tearful reunions weeks after Hamas militants poured across the border on October 7, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli officials.
In response, Israel launched a military campaign to destroy Hamas, killing nearly 15,000 people, mostly civilians and including thousands of children, according to Gaza’s Hamas government.
The third group of hostages released Sunday included a four-year-old American citizen called Abigail whose parents were both murdered in the Hamas attacks.
“What a joy to see her with us. But on the other hand, what a pity that she returns to the reality of not having parents,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
“She has no parents, but she has a whole nation that embraces her,” he added.
Also among those freed Sunday was an 84-year-old woman who was rushed to intensive care in critical condition “after serious neglect,” medical officials said.
Thirteen hostages were freed under the terms of the truce on Sunday in exchange for 39 Palestinian prisoners, who have been received by rapturous crowds waving Palestinian and Hamas flags.
Hamas separately freed three Thai nationals and a Russian-Israeli citizen, Ron Krivoy, who the group said was released “in response to the efforts of Russian President Vladimir Putin” and his “support of the Palestinian cause”.
Israel has faced mounting pressure to extend the pause mediated by Qatar, the United States and Egypt, though its leaders have been keen to dismiss any suggestions of a lasting halt to the offensive.
“We continue until the end — until victory,” Netanyahu said in Gaza on Sunday, on the first visit by an Israeli premier since 2005.
His office has proposed a war budget of 30 billion shekels ($8 billion) for 90 days.
Wearing green military fatigues and surrounded by soldiers, Netanyahu vowed to free all the hostages and “eliminate Hamas”, in footage posted online by his office.
“Nothing will stop us, and we are convinced that we have the power, the strength, the will and the determination to achieve all the war’s goals,” he said.
Elsewhere in Gaza, residents picked through heaps of rubble where homes once stood searching for belongings after weeks of bombardment.
“I came to see if there was anything left, if there was anything I could salvage. We fled with nothing,” said Ous sama al Bass, inspecting the ruins of his home in Al-Zahra, south of Gaza City.
“Everything is lost,” he said. “We’re tired. That’s enough. We can’t take it anymore.”
On the outskirts of Gaza City, families took to the road on foot to head south, pushing luggage and relatives in wheelchairs, and carrying children in their arms.
Israel has told Palestinians in Gaza to leave the north for the relative safety of the south, but it has now sent text messages to those in the southern city of Khan Yunis warning it knows hostages are being held there.
“The army will neutralise anyone who has kidnapped hostages,” the message said.
The UN estimates that 1.7 million of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have been displaced by the fighting.
The pause in fighting has allowed more aid to reach Palestinians struggling to survive with shortages of water and other essentials.
Bbut Adnan Abu Hansa, a spokesman for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), warned of “unprecedented” humanitarian needs.
“We should send 200 lorries a day continuously for at least two months,” he said.
© Agence France-Presse