• Links second round of hostage release to Israel allowing aid trucks into northern Gaza
  • 13 Israeli hostages were expected to be freed for release of 39 Palestinian prisoners in return

JERUSALEM/ GAZA: The armed wing of Hamas said it had decided to delay Saturday’s scheduled second round of hostage releases until Israel committed to allowing aid trucks to enter northern Gaza.

Hamas’ al-Qassam Brigades said the hostage releases would be delayed if Israel did not adhere to the agreed terms for the release of Palestinian prisoners.

There was no immediate Israeli response to the statement. Earlier an Israeli military spokesperson had told France’s BFM television station that, barring last minute changes, 13 Israeli hostages were expected to be freed.

He said 39 Palestinian prisoners would be released in return.

Under the truce deal between Israel and Hamas, mediated by Qatar, a total of 50 hostages are to be exchanged for 150 Palestinian prisoners, some of them convicted on weapon charges and violent offences, over four days.

In the first exchange on Friday, 13 Israeli women and children – out of around 240 hostages captured by Hamas fighters on a killing spree in southern Israel on Oct. 7 – were released. Twenty-four jailed Palestinian women and 15 teenagers were released from Israeli jails.

 

Saturday’s setback came just hours after Egypt, which controls the Rafah border crossing into southern Gaza through which vital aid supplies have resumed, said it had received “positive signals” from all parties over a possible extension of that deal.

Diaa Rashwan, the head of Egypt’s State Information Service (SIS), said in a statement that Cairo was holding extensive talks with all parties to reach an agreement which would mean “the release of more detainees in Gaza and Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.”

Israel has said the ceasefire could be extended if Hamas continues to release hostages at a rate of at least 10 per day. A Palestinian source has said up to 100 hostages could go free.

Israel and Hamas have said hostilities would resume as soon as the truce ends, although US President Joe Biden said on Friday there was a real chance of extending the truce.

He declined to speculate how long the Israel-Hamas conflict would last. Asked at a press conference what his expectations were, he said Israel’s goal of eliminating Hamas was legitimate but difficult.

 

The Palestine Red Crescent Society said 196 trucks of humanitarian aid carried food, water and medical supplies through the Rafah crossing on Friday, the biggest such convoy into Gaza since the territory was blockaded by Israel.

About 1,759 trucks have entered the narrow besieged enclave since Oct 21, it added.

Palestinians cheer release of prisoners

On the other side, Palestinians cheered the return of prisoners from Israeli jails.

Of the 39 prisoners freed by Israel on Friday, 28 were released in the occupied West Bank, an AFP correspondent reported, while the other 11 were brought to annexed east Jerusalem, according to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club.

Crowds of Palestinians in the West Bank set off firecrackers, waved flags and whistled as two white coaches ferried prisoners out of the Ofer military camp, according to AFP journalists at the scene.

“I spent the end of my childhood and my adolescence in prison, far from my parents and their hugs,” freed prisoner Marah Bakir, 24, told AFP after returning to her home in annexed east Jerusalem.

“That’s how it is with a state that oppresses us.”

Earlier in the evening, Israeli authorities fired tear gas to disperse the crowds. The Palestinian Red Crescent said three people were shot and wounded by Israeli security forces.

“The police are in our house and are stopping people from coming to see us,” said Fatina Salman, whose daughter Malak, now 23, was among those released.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, vowed to bring all the Hamas captives home.

“This is one of the goals of the war, and we are committed to achieving all the goals of the war,” he said.

Jens Laerke, spokesman for UN humanitarian agency OCHA, expressed hope that the pause would lead “to a longer-term humanitarian ceasefire”.

Gazans have struggled to survive with shortages of water and other essentials.

The ceasefire also sparked a mass movement of thousands of people who had sought refuge in schools and hospitals from relentless Israeli bombardment.

The UN estimates that 1.7 million of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have been displaced by the fighting.

In southern Gaza’s Khan Yunis, where many Palestinians fled, a cacophony of car horns and ambulance sirens replaced the sound of war.

People loaded belongings onto carts, strapped them to car roofs, or slung bags over their shoulders, crowding streets to return to their homes from temporary shelters.

Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets warning people that the war is not over and it is “very dangerous” to return north, the focus of Israel’s military campaign.

Several thousand Palestinians nevertheless attempted to move north on Friday, the UN humanitarian affairs organisation said.

 

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