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Israel and Hamas agree deal for release of hostages and partial ceasefire

Israel and Hamas have agreed a deal for the release of 50 women and children hostages held in Gaza in return for a four-day partial ceasefire, the Israeli government announced early on Wednesday.

The announcement from the prime minister’s office said the lull in Israeli military operations would be extended for an additional day for every 10 more hostages released. It did not say when the ceasefire would start, though in his address to his cabinet, Benjamin Netanyahu said the first hostages should be free within 48 hours of the agreement.

Hamas confirmed an agreement had been reached and added that 150 Palestinian women and children would be freed from Israeli jails.

“The Israeli government is committed to the return of all abductees home,” the government statement said in a WhatsApp message. “Tonight, the government approved the outline for the first stage of achieving this goal, according to which at least 50 abductees — women and children — will be released for four days, during which there will be a lull in the fighting. The release of every 10 additional abductees will result in an additional day of respite.”

The statement added: “The government of Israel, the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] and the security services will continue the war in order to return home all of the hostages, complete the elimination of Hamas and ensure that there will be no new threat to the State of Israel from Gaza.”

The Israeli confirmation of the agreement followed an extended meeting of the full 38-member Israeli cabinet over the terms, in the face of opposition from far right-wingers.

The debate ended shortly before 3am in Tel Aviv. Before the government vote, Netanyahu, assured his cabinet that the security agencies all supported the hostage deal, and that it would not mean an end to the military campaign against Hamas, which Netanyahu said would resume after the ceasefire was over.

“We are at war, and we will continue the war,” Netanyahu said. “We will continue until we achieve all our goals.”

Israel has also agreed to allow more aid into Gaza, which is suffering an acute humanitarian crisis after seven weeks of relentless bombardment and blockade.

The deal is also thought to include visits by the Red Cross to remaining hostages and a distribution of medicine. Israel will restrict its air strikes on the south of Gaza and surveillance operations.

The deal, struck after weeks of talks mediated by Qatar, comes more than six weeks after the conflict began on 7 October, when Hamas launched attacks from Gaza into southern Israel, killing at least 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking more than 240 people hostage.

More than 14,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to Hamas-run health authorities. Another 2,700 others are missing and believed to be buried under rubble.

Netanyahu, who has pledged to “crush” Hamas, made the announcement after Israel’s war cabinet was convened followed by meetings of the wider security cabinet and the full government.

Opening the final meeting, Netanyahu said the deal was a difficult decision but the right decision, claiming it had the full support of the security agencies.

“They have made it completely clear in their professional assessment, that the security of our forces will be ensured during the pause and that the intelligence effort will be maintained in those days,” Netanyahu said. “They have made it clear that not only will the war effort not be harmed, it will enable the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] to prepare for the continuation of the fighting.”

Even as Netanyahu’s government discussed the deal, airstrikes continued in Gaza and Hamas fired rockets into Israel.

Netanyahu also said the intervention of US president Joe Biden had helped to improve the deal so that it included more hostages for fewer concessions.

If implemented, the agreement would still leave some 190 hostages in Gaza, of whom roughly half are thought to be military personnel.

Qatar, where Hamas has a political office, has been the main intermediary between Israel and the extremist Islamist organisation, though Egypt and others have played a role.

Not all of the hostages are being held by Hamas, with some in the hands of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a separate extremist faction, and criminals in Gaza, say Israeli and other officials.

Most hostages are Israeli, but almost half of the hostages have dual nationality, including from Argentina, Germany, America, France, Thailand, Nepal and Russia. Hospitals in Israel have been prepared to receive those released, Israeli media reported.

The deal is a significant propaganda coup for Hamas and a personal victory for Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, who spent 23 years in Israeli prisons before being released in an exchange in 2011. Sinwar tops Israel’s hitlist and his whereabouts are unknown.

Ensuring that the terms of the deal are met from their side will require Hamas to ensure that all 50 hostages reach the borders of Gaza safely, a major logistical challenge . The group previously indicated during negotiations that they were unaware of the exact location of every hostage due to the varied groups holding them across the territory.

Netanyahu will now be under domestic pressure to get the rest of the hostages freed but faces growing political risks. Several far-right parties that are part of the ruling coalition on Tuesday evening opposed the proposed deal and called for the Israeli offensive in Gaza to be intensified to secure better terms.

Their statements prompted protests in Tel Aviv by hostages families.

Talks between Hamas and the Israeli side slowed following Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza in late October, prompting discussions of a far smaller hostage release.

A source with knowledge of the negotiations said discussions around the release of a large number of civilian hostages, including women, children, elderly and injured or sick people fell apart after two Israeli airstrikes on the Jabaliya refugee camp on 31 October and 1 November, which killed more than 100 people. Negotiators from Hamas, whose exiled leadership includes members present in Qatar, were temporarily unwilling to engage in talks following the strikes.

Israeli officials have suggested that the hostages to be released in coming days will be selected from those held by Hamas, which will then try to locate others held by different groups or factions.

The armed wing of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad announced late on Tuesday the death of one of the Israeli hostages it has been holding.

Two Americans and two Israeli nationals were freed in mid-October by Hamas. The Israeli military last month rescued one of its soldiers, and last week it said it had recovered the bodies of two hostages during the offensive.

“This is a long war, with many rounds. It has set goals and it will take a long time to get to them. We will get ready for the next stages,” an Israeli military spokesman said.

John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, said that the US would not support an advance by Israeli forces into southern Gaza unless there is “a clearly articulated plan for how they’re going to protect the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people that have now added to the population – because they were asked to leave by the Israelis. There’s an obligation there for them to factor that into their planning.”

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