JERUSALEM - Israel approved a deal with Hamas early Wednesday to temporarily pause fighting in the Gaza Strip in exchange for the release of at least 50 of the 240 Israeli hostages held inside the enclave, the Israeli government said in a statement announcing the deal.
The agreement, which Israeli leaders had resisted despite mounting pressure from hostage families and international allies, particularly the United States, marks the first cessation of a six-week air and ground assault that has killed more than 11,000 Gazans and displaced hundreds of thousands more. It caps weeks of tense talks between Israel and Hamas, mediated by the Qatari government and with the heavy intercession of the Biden administration. Both of the warring sides declared that they would get something out of the deal.
“The Government of Israel is obligated to return home all of the hostages,” the government said in a statement issued early Wednesday in Israel. “Tonight, the Government has approved the outline of the first stage of achieving this goal.”
After a four-day pause in fighting - to be extended if Hamas releases additional hostages - “the Government of Israel, the IDF 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 government said.
Hamas said that the provisions of the deal “aim to serve our people and enhance their steadfastness in the face of aggression.”
Israeli leaders do not intend to start the pause in hostilities for 24 hours to give the Israeli Supreme Court time for deliberations and appeals about the deal, an Israeli official familiar with the plans said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal discussions.
Structured as a swap, at least 50 women and children who have been held hostage by Hamas will be released within four days of the start of the pause, according to U.S., Israeli and Middle Eastern officials familiar with the structure of the deal.
Each hostage will be traded for three Palestinians - women or children - held in Israeli prisons. Israel will allow more fuel and humanitarian aid into the enclave, and the pause could be extended by a day for every additional 10 hostages who are released above the initial group of 50, the officials said. None of the Gazans who have been displaced from their homes in northern Gaza would be permitted to travel back during the pause.
U.S. and other officials hope that the deal can build into a broader effort to free the remaining hostages and improve the dire humanitarian situation for civilians in Gaza. And though the Biden administration has said that it continues to support Israel in its effort to eliminate Hamas as a security threat, it also warned Israel in increasingly stark terms to structure its campaign to spare civilians.
That includes the potential next phase of the combat after the end of the pause. Israeli leaders have said they believe they need to continue military pressure on Hamas to secure the release of the remaining groups of hostages. They have turned their eyes to southern Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled from the north at Israel’s request. Now Israeli forces have urged civilians in the south to move to unspecified “safe zones.”
The White House cautioned Israel against moving on the south “absent a cohesive plan” to protect “a dramatically increased civilian population” of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who moved there from the north at Israeli urging, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday.
Israel “has an obligation to factor that into their planning,” Kirby said during a briefing for reporters.
Under the terms of the deal, Hamas will turn over hostages inside Gazan territory to representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who will then escort them to Israeli border crossings. Jailed Palestinian women and children - some as young as 10 years old - will be released at the same time, and the two groups will be swapped in batches, according to the officials familiar with the deal.
There will be provisions for monitoring the deal, including some intelligence supplied by the United States, but no drones will be allowed, nor will overhead monitoring as Hamas moves through the territory to collect the hostages and turn them over to the Red Cross.
Until now, Netanyahu and other senior leaders had steadfastly ruled out halting their attacks until Hamas released the captives.
The final deliberations came as protesters at a Tel Aviv intersection re-dubbed “Hostage Square,” the families of captives banged drums and chanted “Deal now! Deal now! Deal now!”
Some blocked the road near the Defense Ministry.
Shaham Frankel, a Tel Aviv architect, was waiting on details to evaluate the deal. But that was not the most important thing at a moment that relatives have been yearning for since their family members disappeared into Gaza 45 days ago.
“No matter what your thoughts are about the deal with terrorists, it’s important to be here for the families,” said Frankel, 36.
Across the street, a group of a few dozen opponents chanted “Don’t make a deal with the devil,” objecting to any pause in the Israel’s assault on Gaza before completing its stated mission of destroying Hamas as a military entity.
Right-wing members of the governing coalition condemned Netanyahu as the shape of the deal came into focus Tuesday. National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who has been largely excluded from war-related decisions, slammed the terms as a “disaster.” He warned that prisoners released by Israel in previous swaps had allegedly gone on to carry out terrorist operations, including senior Hamas commander Yahya Sinwar, who was freed from an Israeli prison in 2011.
The United States does not know for sure how many total hostages are being held inside Gaza, or how many “Hamas has access to” within that total, according to Kirby.
Israel has put the number at about 240, but “it’s important to remember that other groups also likely hold hostages,” Kirby told reporters Tuesday.
Negotiators hope that if the initial releases go smoothly, other releases will follow. Sketching what he called the “broad strokes” of what will happen after hostages are released, Kirby said that safe passage is paramount to “get them from where they are being held into Israel.”
There are “many different nationalities,” including Israelis, Americans and others, and the United States does not have “fidelity on what the pool would look like” in terms of which nationalities would be included among those released.
Once in Israel, Kirby said, “we have to assume that many of them need some sort of medical attention, after being held in abhorrent conditions,” with the next steps to connect them with their families and provide for follow-up transportation and repatriation if needed.
The agreement came after a day of fierce fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas in the Jabalya region of the northern Gaza Strip.
The fighting Tuesday was close to Gaza’s Indonesian Hospital, which had been struck Monday and was trying to evacuate hundreds of staff and patients. There were reports that Israeli fighter jets and drones were striking targets in the area repeatedly.
Israel has described large parts of northern Gaza as under its control. But the ongoing fighting around Jabalya, home to the largest refugee camp in the strip, suggested that the battle continued. Hamas has denied that Israeli forces are in uncontested control anywhere.
Palestinians say the Israeli attacks on hospitals indicate a clear disregard for civilian life. The Israelis say attacks around hospitals are justified because Hamas uses the facilities for military purposes.
Israeli soldiers have been searching al-Shifa Hospital, the largest in the Gaza Strip, for the underground Hamas command center that Israel has long alleged is hidden there. So far, Israel has shown images of a tunnel shaft and weapons, but no evidence of a major command center.
Fighting also escalated away from Gaza, along Israel’s northern border, where Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters have been exchanging fire for the past six weeks.
Four civilians, including two journalists and an 80-year-old woman, were killed in one of the bloodiest days on the border during the current hostilities, Lebanon’s state-owned National News Agency reported.
Hezbollah said it had retaliated by striking three Israeli military targets in northern Israel. A steady uptick in the intensity and range of the fighting in recent weeks is compounding fears of a second full-fledged war erupting.
The Israeli military did not respond to a request for comment. The Israel Defense Forces said in a statement that troops were active Tuesday in the areas hit, where they were targeting what it called “terrorist cells.”
The current round of fighting began on Oct. 7, when Hamas launched a surprise assault that killed at least 1,200 people in several towns in Israel. Israel responded with a military campaign that its leaders say is aimed at dismantling Hamas in Gaza.