Reports of hostage deaths overshadow Gaza truce negotiations

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Negotiations between Israel and Hamas to extend the Gaza truce were overshadowed at the last minute on Wednesday by an unconfirmed claim by Hamas that a family of Israeli hostages, including a 10-month-old baby, had been killed.

Ahead of a final release of women and children hostages scheduled under an extended truce, the military wing of Hamas said the youngest hostage, baby Kfir Bibas, had been killed in an earlier Israeli bombing, along with his four-year-old brother Ariel and their mother. Their father, who has also been held, was not mentioned in the statement.

Residents of Gaza in a home in Khan Yunis that was hit by Israeli airstrikes prior to the temporary ceasefire.Credit: Getty Images

Israeli officials said they were checking the Hamas claim, a highly emotive issue in Israel due to the family being among the highest-profile civilian hostages yet to be freed.

“The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) is assessing the accuracy of the information,” the military said in a statement, which also said that it held Hamas responsible for the safety of all the hostages in Gaza.

Relatives had issued a special appeal for the family’s freedom after the children and their parents were excluded from the penultimate group freed on Tuesday.

Israeli soldiers at Kibbutz Kfar Azza as Muslim, Jewish and Christian faith leaders toured ahead of an interfaith joint prayer near the Israel-Gaza border on Wednesday.Credit: AP

An Israeli official said it would be impossible to extend the ceasefire – due to lapse on Thursday morning – without a commitment to release all the women and children among the hostages. The official said Israel believed militants were still holding enough women and children to prolong the truce for another two or three days.

Egyptian security sources also said negotiators believed a two-day extension was possible.

Families of Israeli hostages due to be released later on Wednesday (local time) had already been informed. They formed the final group expected to be freed in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails under the current truce agreement.

Gaza’s Hamas rulers published a list of 15 women and 15 teenage Palestinians it wanted released from Israeli jails in return for hostages on Wednesday. The hostages were seized by militants in their deadly raid on Israel on October 7.

For the first time since the truce began, the list of Palestinians to be freed included Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as residents of occupied territories.

So far, the militants have freed 60 Israeli women and children from among around 240 hostages under the deal that secured the war’s initial truce. Twenty-one foreigners, mainly Thai farmworkers, were also freed under separate parallel deals. In return, Israel has released 180 Palestinian detainees, all women and teenagers.

The initial four-day truce was extended by 48 hours from Tuesday, and Israel says it would be willing to prolong it further for as long as Hamas frees 10 hostages a day. But with fewer women and children remaining in captivity, that could mean agreeing to terms governing the release of at least some Israeli men.

A Palestinian official said negotiators were hammering out whether Israeli men could be released on different terms than the exchange for three Palestinian detainees each that had previously applied to the women and children.

Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy said Israel would consider any serious proposal, though he declined to provide further details.

“We are doing everything we can in order to get those hostages out. Nothing is confirmed until it is confirmed,” Levy told reporters in Tel Aviv. “We’re talking about very sensitive negotiations in which human lives hang in the balance.”

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the Gaza Strip was in the midst of an “epic humanitarian catastrophe” and he urged the world not to look away.

“Intense negotiations are taking place to prolong the truce – which we strongly welcome – but we believe we need a true humanitarian ceasefire,” he told a meeting of the UN Security Council.

World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said only 15 of Gaza’s 36 hospitals were still functioning and those still working were completely overwhelmed.

“Of the 25 hospitals north of the Wadi Gaza (river) before the conflict began, only three are functioning at the most basic level, but they lack fuel, water and food,” Tedros said. “The remaining health system capacity must be protected, supported and expanded.”

However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated his earlier pledges to annihilate Hamas once the current ceasefire lapses, signalling a seemingly inevitable return to fighting.

“There is no way we are not going back to fighting until the end. This is my policy, the entire cabinet stands behind it, the entire government stands behind it, the soldiers stand behind it, the people stand behind it – this is exactly what we will do,” he said in a statement.

Tuesday’s release also included for the first time hostages held by Islamic Jihad, a separate militant group, as well as by Hamas itself. The ability of Hamas to secure the release of hostages held by other factions had been an issue in earlier talks.

The truce has brought the first respite to a war launched by Israel to annihilate Hamas after the “Black Shabbat” raid by gunmen who killed 1200 people, according to Israel’s tally.

Israeli bombardment has since reduced much of Gaza to a wasteland, with more than 15,000 people confirmed killed, 40 per cent of them children, according to Palestinian health authorities deemed reliable by the United Nations.

Many more are feared buried under the ruins. The Palestinian health ministry said another 160 bodies had been pulled out of rubble during the last 24 hours of the truce, and around 6500 people were still missing.


More coverage of the Hamas-Israel conflict

  • Hamas had bigger plans on October 7: Intelligence about Hamas’ motivations reveals an intention to strike a blow of historic proportions and provoke an overwhelming Israeli response.
  • Escape from chaos: An Australian father faced a heartbreaking dilemma – whether to flee Gaza to his children, or stay with his wife.
  • Open letters: Mass resignations, boardroom turmoil and angry donors are some of the ways the Israel-Hamas war is filtering down into Australia’s high-powered arts world.
  • Gaza’s youth: One of the cruellest ironies of wars is that they are never started by children, yet it is children who suffer the most.

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