November 21, 2023 - 10:56 am
Updated November 21, 2023 - 9:19 pm
JERUSALEM — Israel’s Cabinet on Wednesday approved a temporary cease-fire with the Hamas terrorist group that is expected to bring the first halt in fighting in a six-week war and win freedom for dozens of hostages held captive in the Gaza Strip.
The deal calls for a four-day cease-fire, during which Israel will halt its retaliatory military offensive in Gaza while Hamas frees “at least” 50 of the roughly 240 hostages it and other terrorists are holding, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said. The first hostages to be released are women and children.
“The government of Israel is committed to bringing all of the hostages home. Tonight, the government approved the outline for the first stage of achieving this goal,” the office said in a statement.
President Joe Biden said in a statement late Tuesday that he welcomes the agreement and stressed that “it is important that all aspects of this deal be fully implemented.”
“I am extraordinarily gratified that some of these brave souls, who have endured weeks of captivity and an unspeakable ordeal, will be reunited with their families once this deal is fully implemented,” said Biden, who was in Nantucket, Massachusetts, for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Biden said the agreement should lead to the release of some American hostages, and added, “I will not stop until they are all released.”
A statement early Wednesday morning from Qatar’s Foreign Ministry described the talks that produced the agreement as a mediation by Egypt, the United States and Qatar for a “humanitarian pause.”
“The starting time of the pause will be announced within the next 24 hours and last for four days, subject to extension,” the statement said. “The agreement includes the release of 50 civilian women and children hostages currently held in the Gaza Strip in exchange for the release of a number of Palestinian women and children detained in Israeli prisons, the number of those released will be increased in later stages of implementing the agreement.”
Ahead of the vote in Israel, which came after a six-hour meeting stretching into the early morning, Netanyahu said the war against Hamas would resume after the truce expires.
“We are at war, and we will continue the war,” he said. “We will continue until we achieve all our goals.”
The government statement also said the truce would be extended an extra day for every additional 10 hostages released by Hamas.
Hundreds taken by Hamas
The war erupted on Oct. 7 when several thousand Hamas terrorists burst across the border into Israel, killing at least 1,200 people and taking hundreds hostage. Most of the dead were civilians, and small children, women and older people are among the hostages.
Israel responded with weeks of blistering airstrikes on Gaza, followed by a ground invasion that began over three weeks ago.
More than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed during the Israeli offensive, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory. It does not differentiate between civilians and terrorists. Israel says thousands of Hamas terrorists have been killed.
The invasion has caused vast destruction in northern Gaza, including Gaza City. An estimated 1.7 million people have been displaced and continue to face shortages of food, medicines, fuel and other key supplies throughout the territory.
Israel has rejected international criticism and vowed to press ahead until it destroys Hamas’ military and governing capabilities and all hostages are freed. Hamas, an Islamic terrorist group sworn to Israel’s destruction, has ruled Gaza since ousting the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007. Hamas has been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., Canada and European Union.
Under Wednesday’s deal, Hamas is expected to release roughly 12 hostages each day. While the statement did not say when the truce would begin, Israeli media reports said the hostages could begin to be released as soon as Thursday.
Campaign to retrieve hostages
The return of any of the hostages could lift spirits in Israel, where the plight of the captives has gripped the country’s attention. Airwaves are filled with interviews of families of the hostages, who include babies and toddlers, women and children and people in their 80s with health issues.
The families have become a powerful force in Israel — staging mass demonstrations and marches pressuring the government to bring home their loved ones.
They have made a central Tel Aviv square their headquarters, where displays like a long white table with seats for all 240 hostages are meant to keep their plight in the public eye.
The structure of the deal could give Hamas and its shadowy leader, Yehya Sinwar, a chance to regroup after suffering heavy losses during the fighting, especially if Hamas drags things out with additional hostage releases.
Israel says it has killed thousands of Hamas fighters and destroyed parts of the group’s underground tunnel system. But Israeli officials acknowledge much of the group’s infrastructure remains intact.
Asked about a potential cease-fire, the army’s chief spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said: “The army will know how to maintain its operational achievements.”