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Hamas freed a fifth consecutive group of hostages on Tuesday, as a pause in the fighting held despite Israeli troops and militants briefly exchanging fire in northern Gaza.
The Israeli military on Tuesday evening said 12 released hostages — 10 Israelis and two foreign nationals — had been transported from Gaza by the International Committee of the Red Cross and were with its troops. In return, Israel has agreed to release 30 Palestinians from its prisons on Tuesday.
The exchange came a day after the warring sides agreed to extend what was originally a four-day ceasefire involving hostage and prisoner swaps by 48 hours.
In an attempt to prolong the temporary truce further to secure more hostage releases, CIA director Bill Burns and the head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency David Barnea were in Doha on Tuesday to hold talks with Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani and Egyptian officials.
The focus of their discussions was on how to build on the agreement, extend the pause in hostilities and secure the release of more hostages, an official briefed on the talks said.
Mediators were hopeful Hamas would be able to locate another 20 women and children being held in Gaza in order to extend the current agreement by a further two days beyond Wednesday, the official said.
“They [Hamas] are looking for them now,” this person added.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another militant group in Gaza, on Tuesday said it had released “a number of hostages”, without specifying how many or when.
However, the fragility of the truce was underscored when Hamas militants and Israeli troops exchanged fire in northern Gaza on Tuesday afternoon, in the first significant violation of the agreement.
Both sides accused each other of sparking the clashes, during which some Israeli soldiers were lightly wounded.
Qatar, the US and Egypt brokered the original deal under which Hamas agreed to release 50 women and children held in Gaza. In return, the Jewish state agreed to pause its offensive against the militant group in Gaza for four days, allow more aid into the besieged strip and release 150 Palestinian women and children held in Israeli prisons.
The talks in Doha on Tuesday were focusing on the next category of hostages that could be released and what the parameters of a new agreement could look like, the official briefed on the talks said.
Hamas and other Palestinian militants seized about 240 hostages during the devastating October 7 attack on southern Israel that triggered the war.
The captives include women, children and Israeli soldiers and reservists. The most likely category of hostages to be released after the women and children would be a small group of elderly people.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been under pressure to continue the temporary truce in order to free more hostages. He has vowed to crush Hamas and eradicate it from Gaza after the militant group’s October 7 attack killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials.
To facilitate extensions of the temporary ceasefire, Sheikh Mohammed said in a Financial Times interview on Sunday that Hamas would need to locate about 40 women and children being held in Gaza by other armed groups and gangs in the strip.
Families of the remaining hostages have vowed to keep up the pressure for their release. Ofri Bibas, whose brother Yarden is among the hostages along with Yarden’s wife Shiri and their two sons, on Tuesday appealed to the truce negotiators to secure the family’s freedom.
Although Bibas’s 10-month-old nephew Kfir is the youngest hostage remaining in captivity, she said her family had been informed that the children were not on the list of hostages to be freed on Tuesday.
“We call upon the Israeli government and Qatar and Egypt . . . to do whatever they can, to include our family [ . . . ] in this deal and to release them as soon as possible,” Bibas told a press conference.
The truce involves Hamas releasing groups of Israeli women and children held hostage in Gaza every day, in exchange for Israeli prisons freeing Palestinian women and children who have been sentenced or are in detention.
Foreigners, including people from Thailand and the Philippines, have also been released by Hamas during the truce under separate agreements.
The deal also involves stepping up desperately needed aid deliveries through Rafah, the single functioning border crossing with the besieged Gaza Strip.
Home to 2.3mn people, Gaza has largely been cut off from supplies since the fighting started, creating a mounting humanitarian crisis. The UN says 1.8mn people have fled their homes and more than 1mn are sheltering in under-equipped UN facilities, including schools.
The ferocity of the Jewish state’s retaliatory air campaign and ground invasion, which has levelled swaths of the densely populated area and hit schools and hospitals, had sparked international calls for a ceasefire. Palestinian officials say 14,800 people have been killed in Gaza in the Israeli offensive.