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Israel approves hostage deal with Hamas

Israel and Hamas have agreed a deal for the release of 50 civilian hostages in Gaza in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and a four-day halt to hostilities.

The Israeli prime minister’s office said it had approved a deal that would include a four-day “pause in fighting” to facilitate the release of 50 hostages, with an additional day’s ceasefire for every 10 hostages released after that.

The pause, which will mark the most prolonged cessation in the conflict since Hamas’s deadly October 7 attack on Israel, is to be accompanied by an influx of humanitarian aid — including fuel — into Gaza.

Israel will initially release up to 150 Palestinian women and children from its prisons. On Wednesday morning, the Israeli justice ministry published a list of some 300 prisoners who could be included in the deal.

The Israeli public has 24 hours to appeal against the agreement, and one group, the Almagor Terror Victims Association, said it would do so. In the past, the supreme court has rejected such appeals.

The hostages being held in the coastal enclave will be released in batches as Israel and Hamas test the durability of the deal. Their release will begin 24 hours after the deal was announced, said a senior US official, and will be staggered over four to five days.

A senior US administration official said three Americans — of the 10 unaccounted for — were expected to be released in the first phase of the deal, including a girl who turns four on Friday. Even after the release, Hamas and other groups in Gaza will still hold almost 200 other hostages, including Israeli soldiers and other women and children.

The complex negotiations — brokered by Qatar, which hosts Hamas’s political leadership, and negotiated with spy chiefs from the US and Israel — took weeks to finalise, with disagreements over details, logistics and Israel’s final concessions to secure the release of the hostages.

US President Joe Biden thanked the leaders of Qatar and Egypt for their “critical leadership and partnership in reaching this deal” and said he appreciated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s support for “an extended pause to ensure this deal can be fully carried out”.

“Today’s deal should bring home additional American hostages, and I will not stop until they are all released,” Biden said.

Qatar confirmed “the success of its joint mediation efforts” to reach the agreement and affirmed “its commitment to ongoing diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions” between Israel and Hamas.

Before Israel’s government voted on the deal, Netanyahu said Biden had intervened to improve its terms “to include more hostages and at a lower cost”.

Hamas’s initial demand was for a 10-day pause to hostilities, which was rejected, according to a person familiar with the negotiations. It then asked for five days. Israel insisted on a shorter pause.

The person briefed on the discussions said other points of contention involved the logistics of the exchange, including the sequence in which people would be released; whether Israel could use drones to monitor the process; the number of Palestinian prisoners freed and where they could go once they were out of jail.

If the swap succeeds, negotiators hope it will be the first of several to secure the release of more Israeli civilians and foreign nationals in exchange for an extension to the pause in hostilities, the person added.

The person expressed the hope that Hamas would also use the pause to gather civilian hostages not under its control in Gaza. Some are believed to be held by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a smaller militant faction, and criminal gangs.

Hamas has said it intends to hold on to the Israeli soldiers it captured on October 7 in the hope of trading them for high-ranking Palestinians, some of them militants, in Israeli prisons. Four of the roughly 240 hostages held by Hamas in the enclave have already been released, and the deaths of two others have been confirmed. One, a soldier, was rescued.

More than 1.5mn Palestinians have been displaced and are living under “catastrophic humanitarian conditions” according to UN officials, crammed into overcrowded shelters and private homes. Hospitals have collapsed, food is scarce and there is little access to fresh water.

In Gaza, news of a brief pause in fighting brought little relief to an exhausted population that has endured intense bombardment for six weeks.

In Rafah, close to Egypt’s border, Samar Mosbah, 37, said a truce was “meaningless” because she will not be allowed to return to her home to check on it or on relatives who remained there.

“My family is still in Gaza because my mother is elderly and she could not travel to the south,” said Mosbah, who was displaced from northern Gaza. “They will remain under bombardment, and we will still be displaced. A truce will change nothing.”

Marwa Saleh, displaced from Gaza City in the north to Deir al-Balah in the centre of the strip, said: “Even if we get fuel, what will we do with it? We are not allowed to go back to our homes that have been destroyed.”

She added: “As usual, there will be intense air strikes today before the truce has come into effect. We are victims who are not seen by anyone.”

The plight of the hostages has exacerbated the trauma of Israelis over the events of October 7 and become a politically sensitive issue for Netanyahu.

Families of the captives have pressured his government to do more to secure their freedom even as Israel has pressed ahead with its offensive.

Meanwhile, far-right politicians have vehemently opposed concessions to Hamas. Ultra-nationalist security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and two other ministers from his extreme Jewish Power party voted against the deal.

Israel, backed by the Biden administration, had resisted mounting international calls for a ceasefire, insisting that any pause in the fighting would come only after Hamas agreed to free a large number of captives.

Brett McGurk, White House Middle East adviser, told a conference in Bahrain over the weekend that a pause in Israel’s assault and a surge in humanitarian relief into Gaza “will come when hostages are released”.

Hamas killed about 1,200 people in its October 7 attack, according to Israeli officials. Close to 13,000 people have been killed by the Israeli military campaign in Gaza, according to Palestinian officials.

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