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Hamas releases two more hostages as mediators push to extend fragile truce

Hamas released two more women held hostage in Gaza as the delicate exchange of Palestinian prisoners for Israeli hostages entered its sixth day, under the cover of a truce brokered by Qatar.

Up to 10 Israelis were expected to be released from captivity on Thursday, as US secretary of state Antony Blinken met Israeli and Palestinian leaders to push for an extension of the temporary ceasefire to facilitate the release of more hostages and to deliver more aid into besieged Gaza.

Previous exchanges had led to at least 10 Israeli hostages being released from captivity each day. Israel is expected to release a further 30 Palestinian women and children from its prisons, after the fragile truce was extended at the last minute on Thursday morning.

“This process is producing results,” Blinken said as he met Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Tel Aviv. “It’s important, and we hope it can continue.”

Blinken also told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel must account for humanitarian and civilian needs in southern Gaza before proceeding with its military campaign, and should hold extremist settlers in the occupied West Bank to account, the state department said.

He also met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, where he condemned “extremist violence against Palestinian civilians in the West Bank” and said he would “continue to insist on full accountability for those responsible”.

Netanyahu faces pressure internationally, and domestically from the families of hostages, to prolong the pauses. But he also faces resistance from far-right members of his governing coalition who oppose any new deals with Hamas.

Netanyahu said on Wednesday that Israel would resume its military campaign against Hamas “after completing this stage of the return of our hostages”.

About 100 people have been freed over the past week and more than 200 Palestinians released, with the ceasefire also allowing vital humanitarian aid to enter Gaza uninterrupted. The pair released on Thursday included Mia Schem, a 21-year-old Israeli-French national who appeared in a Hamas hostage video with a broken arm.

Activist Ahed Tamimi, centre, was among the 30 Palestinian women and children freed by Israel in exchange for hostages held by Hamas © AP

The ceasefire is set to expire at 7am local time on Friday, unless Hamas offers up more women and children held in Gaza who could be traded for Palestinian prisoners.

This 24-hour extension was less than the length that mediators had been hoping to secure, underscoring the fragility of the truce agreement as Hamas, which runs Gaza, appeared to be rushing to locate remaining civilian women and children held in the strip to release to Israel.

The militant group initially offered to free seven women and children on Thursday, as well as handing over the bodies of three people who had died. Israel rejected the offer but accepted a compromise that led to a one-day extension.

“People should read it as a positive sign,” said an official briefed on the talks. “It was the perfect excuse for Israelis to go back to war, because Hamas wasn’t able to produce a list of 10 women and children.”

Mediators hope they can prolong the agreement by another day if Hamas can locate women and children held by other groups in Gaza.

“Now it’s working on the next phase of the pause,” the official said. “The mediators want to get another extra day and then work to extend it again. There seems to be a genuine willingness to extend by both sides.”

The brokered pause in hostilities has survived several stumbles, including one over a delay in delivering aid into the territory and another that involved a brief exchange of fire between Israeli troops and Hamas fighters in the strip.

Humanitarian aid has provided some relief to more than 2mn Palestinians trapped in Gaza, where Israel’s aerial bombardment and ground invasion has killed more than 14,800 people, according to Palestinian officials, and has reduced much of the enclave to rubble.

The war erupted after Hamas’s devastating October 7 attack on southern Israel that killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials. Hamas and other militants also seized about 240 hostages.

The original deal, which came into effect a week ago, focused on the release of women and children held in Gaza. In return, Israel agreed to pause its offensives on Gaza, free Palestinian women and children from its prisons and allow more aid into the strip.

There have been discussions about a broader hostage deal that could require Israel to commit to a more lasting halt to its offensive and release large numbers of Palestinian prisoners, including those convicted of murder.

In return, Hamas and other militant groups would release additional hostages from Gaza, potentially including dozens of Israeli soldiers and reservists.

The families of the hostages have pushed the government to “pay any price” to get their relatives out of Gaza, and the international community, including US President Joe Biden, has said it wants the pauses in fighting extended.

Hamas freed 16 people on Wednesday, including 10 Israelis, two Israeli-Russian dual nationals and four Thai citizens, according to Qatar’s foreign ministry.

Among the 30 released from Israeli jails on Wednesday were Ahed Tamimi, a well-known Palestinian protester, who was jailed for a Facebook post her family denies she made.

The extension came just as a shooting attack in west Jerusalem left three people dead, while a dozen others were taken to hospital, the Magen David Adom ambulance service said. Two men believed to be the attackers were “neutralised”, the Israeli police said.

Netanyahu said in a statement that a civilian aided in “eliminating” the attackers, and that he would step up the distribution of weapons to more civilians.

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