Israelis torn over prospect of another truce extension

Pause in fighting has created opening for desperately needed humanitarian aid to enter southern Gaza

Israeli soldiers take position in a damaged building in the Zeitoun district, on the southern outskirts of Gaza city. AFP
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With international pressure mounting for Israel and Hamas to extend their truce in the Gaza Strip, Israelis are grappling over whether they want a prolonged pause in hostilities.

The four-day truce from November 24 was extended by two days and was set to expire early on Thursday, with Israel pledging a quick resumption of its air-and-ground campaign that Gaza authorities say has killed more than 15,000 people, most of them women and children.

The pause in fighting has created an opening for desperately needed humanitarian aid to enter southern Gaza and has allowed for the exchange of dozens of Hamas-held hostages for Israeli-held Palestinian prisoners and detainees.

Hamas and aligned militants took about 240 people hostage on October 7 during their attack on southern Israel that killed about 1,200 people.

So far, Hamas has released around 60 Israeli hostages, all of them civilian women or children, and has separately freed 21 citizens of Thailand, the Philippines and Russia. Another exchange was planned for Wednesday night.

Israel has released three Palestinians for each hostage Hamas has set free.

In Jerusalem, Israelis expressed a desire to see more hostages freed but they worried that Hamas is regrouping every moment the truce is in place.

“We are between a rock and a hard place,” Batya Green, a local whose brother is serving with the Israeli military in Gaza, told The National.

“We are eager to see the hostages come home … but a lot of soldiers with [my brother] are very nervous about losing momentum.”

Yossi Shmentov, another Jerusalem resident, said that while he too wanted the hostages home, he saw the truce as a sign of weakness from the Israeli government and said he did not want it extended.

“You don't negotiate with terrorists, it gives them vitality and power. Being weak about it is going to create another 7/10,” he added, referring to October 7.

Hamas has been designated a terrorist organisation by several western powers including the US and EU.

CIA head Bill Burns and the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency were reportedly in Doha on Tuesday for a series of meetings initiated by Qatar to discuss the potential terms of an extended deal, with Egyptian officials also attending.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to visit Israel and the West Bank on Thursday, his third such trip since October 7.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday underscored that Israel will resume its campaign to eliminate Hamas regardless of the length of any temporary ceasefire.

“After this phase of returning our abductees is exhausted, will Israel return to fighting? So my answer is an unequivocal yes,” he said.

“There is no way we are not going back to fighting until the end.”

Israeli political scientist Gerald Steinberg said there was a “50/50 chance” Wednesday's truce would be extended while Mr Blinken is in Israel, provided the release of hostages continues.

“At the same time, Blinken will hear from every Israeli official that Israel is absolutely committed to removing Hamas from power and destroying its military infrastructure,” Mr Steinberg said.

Mr Steinberg, a professor of politics at Bar Ilan University, also said Mr Blinken would be discussing ways to prevent Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon from upping its attacks on Israel if hostilities in Gaza resume.

“If we're going to have a return to large-scale combat in the next day or two or three, then it's very likely that Hezbollah will escalate beyond what is done before to try to help save Hamas and Israel will respond very strongly to that,” he said.

“We may see an escalation and perhaps Blinken will try to come up with ways of preventing a spiral of conflict in the north.”

The pause in fighting has allowed the entry of more humanitarian aid into Gaza, where conditions are “catastrophic”, according to the UN.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the US – which is also supplying bombs to the Israeli military – had airlifted about 25 tonnes of medical supplies and food to Egypt that would be delivered to Gaza in the first of three planned shipments.

In Jerusalem's Old City, Palestinian shopkeeper Ali Quais said Hamas had looked after the hostages well and said the only way out of the protracted Palestinian-Israeli conflict was for Israel to end its blockade of Gaza.

“We need peace,” he said. “People have to live together.”

Jerusalem resident Avi Attias said what is happening in Gaza is heartbreaking.

“What can I say? They [Hamas] didn't leave us any choice,” he said, referring to the civilian toll in Gaza.

The latest from the Israel-Gaza war – in pictures

Updated: November 30, 2023, 5:11 AM