JOHANNESBURG - Israel and Hamas extended their truce late Monday after agreeing to release more hostages and prisoners and Washington said it was dispatching its top diplomat to the region for more talks over the conflict in Gaza.
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit Israel for the third time since Hamas attacked on Oct 7, his office said, as he landed in Brussels for a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) meeting.
Israel and Hamas have agreed to pause fighting until early Thursday, bringing their truce to a halt for six days. Blinken’s visit and US efforts have been focused on keeping the devastating conflict from spreading further in the Middle East.
Blinken’s talks are aimed at pressing for a long-term solution to the crisis including the creation of an independent Palestinian state, the State Department said in a statement late Monday. Blinken will also “stress the need to sustain the increased flow of humanitarian assistance to Gaza, secure the release of all hostages, and improve protections for civilians in Gaza,” it said.
The current halt —- which began Friday after negotiations brokered by Qatar, with the help of Egypt and the US — was originally due to end Tuesday.
The talks have brought the release of almost 70 of the 240 hostages taken when Hamas swarmed across Gaza’s northern border and have led to the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. There’s been increased delivery of aid into Gaza.
More aid supplies are needed to alleviate a “catastrophic” situation there, Tor Wennesland, the United Nations’ (UN) special coordinator for the Middle East Process, said on X, a social media platform formerly known as Twitter. Large areas of the northern part of the Gaza Strip, where Israel says Hamas has its main bases, has been reduced to rubble by Israeli air strikes. Authorities in the Hamas-run territory estimate that more than 15,000 people have been killed.
The extended cease-fire is expected to continue the exchange of small groups of people, with roughly one hostage held in Gaza released for three Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.
Israel’s government, which has said it has twin aims of securing the release of captives and dismantling Hamas, has been pressured by public concern over those who have been abducted to keep pushing for the release of more of its citizens as details of the conditions under which they were kept begin to seep out.
The limited release sparked a mass rally in Tel Aviv over the weekend and renewed calls from groups representing the families of the hostages for more to be set free and access to those who remain to be given the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The government has reiterated its intention to continue the war once the cease-fire is over. The conflict has cost the economy 198 billion shekels (US$53 billion), driven primarily by defence spending, Israel’s central bank said Monday.
Growth projections for this year and next were also slashed by the Bank of Israel and a budget deficit of 5% was predicted for 2024 as the government on Monday approved a revised fiscal plan for 2023 that will boost expenditure amid disputes over outlays for religious programs and West Bank settlements.