By Josef Federman and Jack Jeffery | Associated Press
JERUSALEM — Israel’s Cabinet on Wednesday approved a ceasefire agreement with the militant group Hamas that would temporarily end a devastating war that has lasted more than six weeks and free dozens of hostages held in the Strip. Gaza in exchange for Palestinians. in Israeli prisons.
Under the terms of this agreement, Hamas must release 50 of the approximately 240 hostages it is holding in the Gaza Strip over a period of four days, the Israeli government announced on Wednesday. He said he would extend the lull by an additional day for every 10 hostages released.
The government said the first hostages released would be women and children.
Before the Cabinet vote Wednesday morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would resume its offensive against Hamas after the ceasefire expires.
It was not immediately clear when the truce would come into force.
Netanyahu convened his cabinet for the vote Tuesday evening. The meeting stretched into the early hours of Wednesday, underscoring the sensitivity of a proposal that would suspend the Israeli offensive against Hamas before it achieved its objectives.
Before the vote, Netanyahu sought to assure government ministers that the break was only tactical, pledging to resume the offensive after the truce expired. Senior security officials were also present at the meeting.
“We are at war and we will continue the war,” Netanyahu said. “We will continue until we achieve all of our goals.”
Israel has pledged to continue the war until it destroys Hamas’s military capabilities and returns all hostages.
Netanyahu said that during the lull, intelligence efforts would be maintained, allowing the military to prepare for the next stages of the battle. He said the battle would continue until “Gaza no longer threatens Israel.”
The announcement comes as Israeli troops battle Palestinian militants in an urban refugee camp in northern Gaza and around hospitals overcrowded with patients and families.
The agreement does not mean the end of the war, which erupted on October 7 after Hamas militants crossed the border into southern Israel and killed at least 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapped some 240 others.
THE TOLL IN GAZA
During weeks of Israeli airstrikes and ground invasion, more than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed, two-thirds of them women and minors, and more than 2,700 others are missing and believed to be buried under rubble, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health. The ministry says it has not been able to update its tally since November 11 due to the collapse of the health sector.
Health officials in Gaza say the toll has risen sharply since then, and hospitals continue to report deaths from the daily strikes, often by the dozens.
The West Bank Health Ministry last reported a death toll of 13,300 people, but stopped providing its own tally on Tuesday without giving a reason. For that reason, and because local officials refused to explain in detail how they tracked deaths after Nov. 11, the AP decided to stop publishing its tally.
The Ministry of Health’s assessment does not differentiate between civilians and combatants. Israel claims to have killed thousands of Hamas militants, but has provided no evidence of its tally.
In southern Lebanon, an Israeli strike killed two journalists from the Al-Mayadeen television channel, according to the pan-Arab network allied to Hezbollah and Lebanese officials. There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military. Another Israeli drone strike in Lebanon killed four Hamas members, a Palestinian official and a Lebanese security official said.
The Israeli army has exchanged fire almost daily across the border with the Lebanese group Hezbollah and Palestinian militants since the start of the war.
Israel, the United States and Qatar, which mediates with Hamas, have been negotiating for weeks a release of hostages that would be accompanied by a temporary ceasefire and the entry of additional aid.
In Washington, President Joe Biden said Tuesday that an agreement on the release of some hostages was “very close.”
Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed al-Ansari expressed optimism, telling reporters that “we are at the closest point we have ever come to reaching an agreement.”
Izzat Rishq, a senior Hamas official, said Tuesday that a deal could be reached “in the coming hours.”
FIGHTS IN JABALIYA AND AROUND THE HOSPITALS
Inside Gaza, the front line of the war has shifted to the Jabaliya refugee camp, a densely constructed concrete neighborhood near Gaza City that houses families displaced during the 1948 war surrounding the creation of Israel. Israel has been bombing the area for weeks and the army said Hamas fighters had regrouped there and in other eastern districts after being driven from much of Gaza City.
Fighting in Jabaliya also affected two nearby hospitals, trapping hundreds of patients and displaced people sheltering there. A strike on Tuesday hit the interior of one of the facilities, al-Awda, killing four people, including three doctors, the hospital director told Al-Jazeera television. The director, Ahmed Mahna, blamed Israel for the strike, a claim that AP could not independently confirm. The medical aid group Doctors Without Borders confirmed that two of the killed doctors worked for it.
Jabaliya residents said there was heavy fighting as Israeli forces tried to advance under the cover of airstrikes. “They face strong resistance,” said Hamza Abu Mansour, a university student.
The Israeli military said the strikes hit three tunnel shafts where the fighters were hiding and destroyed the rocket launchers. Footage released by the army showed Israeli soldiers patrolling on foot as gunshots rang out around them.
It was not possible to independently confirm details of the fighting.
It is unclear how many Palestinian civilians remain in northern Gaza, but the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees estimates that some 160,000 people are still in its shelters, even though it can no longer provide services. Thousands more continue to take shelter in several hospitals in the north, even after many fled to the south in recent weeks.
Most hospitals are no longer operational. The hospital situation in Gaza is “catastrophic,” Michael Ryan, a senior World Health Organization official, said Monday.
As Israeli troops surrounded the Indonesian hospital, also near Jabaliya, staff had to bury 50 dead in the facility’s courtyard, a senior health ministry official told Al-Jazeera television. hospital, Munir al-Boursh.
According to the Gaza Health Ministry, up to 600 injured and some 2,000 displaced Palestinians remain stuck in hospital.
A similar standoff has unfolded in recent days at Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest, where more than 250 patients and medical workers are stranded after the evacuation of 31 premature babies.
Israel has provided evidence of a militant presence in Shifa in recent days. But he has yet to substantiate his claims that Hamas had a major command center beneath the facility, allegations denied by Hamas and hospital staff.
SAYING CONDITIONS IN THE NORTH AND SOUTH
Most of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have gathered in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, where Israeli strikes have continued and the army has announced plans to expand its ground invasion. Many are crowded into schools and other UN-run facilities in the south of the territory or sleeping on the streets, even as winter rains have battered the coastal enclave in recent days.
There are shortages of food, water and fuel for generators across Gaza, which has been without central electricity for more than a month.
Strikes destroyed residential buildings in the Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza overnight, killing at least 20 people, hospital officials said. Footage from the scene showed the legs of five young boys protruding from under a collapsed concrete slab of a house.
Israel continues to strike what it considers to be militant targets throughout Gaza, often killing women and children. Israel accuses Hamas of using civilians as human shields.
Jeffery reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Wafaa Shurafa in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip; Samy Magdy in Cairo; and Melanie Lidman in Jerusalem contributed.