Tel Aviv : Five countries have been negotiating feverishly towards hammering out an agreement to extend the current ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas beyond Thursday for another four days even as fears loomed large over resumption of war in Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said war will continue to crush Hamas fully even if ceasefire is extended and hostages are returned. However, he faces pressure from US President Joe Biden to end the conflict.
Negotiators from at least five countries were working towards an agreement to extend a ceasefire in Gaza Strip while Hamas announced on Wednesday that three militant-held Israeli hostages have died, media reports said.
Hamas leaders were willing to extend the truce for another four days and release more Israeli hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, the Times of Israel reported, citing a source close to the militant group.
Israeli officials also showed interest in extending the cease-fire with the proviso that Hamas agree to release more hostages.
Officials in Qatar, Egypt and the US have been working with Hamas and Israeli leaders on another temporary extension with an eye towards ending the 50-day war.
Netanyahu, however, is firm that fighting will ultimately continue until Hamas has been crushed.
Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, wrote on X that the “time is ripe” for a larger swap.
“Netanyahu can see that Hamas prefers not to return to war but the public insistence on prioritizing return of hostages ties his hands,” Indyk wrote.
“And pressure from (President Joe) Biden to extend the pause makes it doubly difficult for him to resume the battle.”
However, a senior Israeli official told USA Today that, despite reports to the contrary, he was “not aware of any possibility” to turn the pause into a longer-term cease-fire involving all the remaining hostages, including men and soldiers, being released in exchange for all Palestinians in Israeli jails.
“We are doubtful there is such an offer,” the official said.
Israel has been pounding Gaza since Hamas militants slipped into Israel on October 7 on a mission of destruction, killing 1,200 people before racing back into Gaza with an estimated 240 hostages.
Israel’s response has been tierce reducing parts of Gaza into massive rubble with bombardment in a vengeful military campaign that Palestinian authorities say has killed more than 13,000 people.
The truce began on Friday and initially was to last four days, allowing the release of 50 Israeli hostages and 150 Israeli-held Palestinian prisoners.
The talks resulted in a two-day extension through Wednesday that allowed for more releases.
Now, talks are on for further extension of ceasefire to facilitate the release of more hostages.
Hamas said it will release two Russian hostages Wednesday at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Militants have released 61 Israeli hostages and 20 foreigners since the temporary truce began. Israel has freed 180 female teenage Palestinians.
Thirty-one children have been among the hostages released by militants, but a 10-month-old, a 4-year old and seven teens are still being held, Israeli officials say. About 85 hostages have been released overall and about 155 remain in captivity.
Hamas says three hostages have died. The Israeli military said it was investigating the validity of such claims that that three Israeli hostages have died “as a result of a former Zionist bombing on the Gaza Strip”, apparently prior to the start of the ceasefire. — IANS