JERUSALEM – Israeli attacks inside Gaza continued unabated Thursday as an agreement between Israel and Hamas to pause hostilities was finally agreed on after a 24-hour delay while negotiators raced to resolve final details.
Qatar’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday afternoon announced that the four-day pause would begin at 7 a.m. local time Friday and that the first group of hostages, 13 women and children, would be transferred at 4 p.m. the same day, with additional groups over the next four days for a total of 50 – in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners.
The delay stemmed from logistical complications, including how the list of hostages would be verified, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed Al Ansari. He cautioned that the deal remains fragile.
“These are not set in stone, they are not completely guaranteed,” he said. But Qatar is “confident” in the deal and the “commitment to the success” expressed by both parties. “We are hoping that we don’t see any further delays, and I think that we have reached a point now where everything is in place and we are ready to go on the ground.”
He described the negotiations as “very difficult and very detailed.” Despite more than a month of intense talks, Al Ansari said the information about the number of hostages held in Gaza and their identities remains incomplete. He said that Qatar hopes Hamas will use the pause in hostilities to gather more information on who is being held in Gaza by Hamas fighters or other groups.
Hamas added further details in a statement that 200 trucks of aid and medical supplies and four trucks of fuel would enter the Gaza Strip daily during the pause and that Israeli aircraft would stop flying over the northern Gaza Strip for six hours of the day.
The agreement marks the first potential cessation of the raging violence in almost seven weeks. Israel’s emergency government approved it early Wednesday.
After initially agreeing to implement the deal on Thursday, the head of Israel’s National Security Council, Tzachi Hanegbi, said Wednesday that no captives were likely to be freed before Friday morning, leaving the families of hostages and prisoners to endure another day of waiting – and for those in Gaza, more airstrikes.
Israel’s military said it had carried out more than 300 strikes in the enclave in the past day. Near Rafah, in the southern reaches where hundreds of thousands of displaced Gazans had fled to escape the fighting up north, an airstrike on Thursday left many dead and wounded and more fleeing.
The Gaza Health Ministry also reported that the prominent head of al-Shifa Hospital was detained by Israeli forces while accompanying a convoy evacuating patients.
The Israel Defense Forces accused Mohamed Abu Salmiya of allowing Hamas to use tunnels under Gaza’s largest hospitals to coordinate their activities. The role of hospitals has become one of the key controversies of the conflict, with Israel depicting them as being centers of militant coordination. Palestinians deny the accusation and have repeatedly condemned their targeting.
In its statement, the IDF claimed it had “evidence showing that the Shifa Hospital, under his direct management, served as a Hamas command and control center.”
Khaled Abu Samra was one of seven al-Shifa doctors who accompanied about 260 patients in the convoy leaving the hospital, and he described the events in a phone interview with the Washington Post on Thursday.
The evacuation came at the direction of Israeli forces, which provided the hospital with more than a dozen ambulances and two vans with U.N. drivers, Abu Samra said.
“I was with kidney failure patients on the bus to provide assistance if anyone became fatigued on the way,” he said.
The group waited at a checkpoint for seven hours, undergoing searches. Some of the soldiers spoke to the children in Hebrew, possibly searching for Israeli hostages. They questioned individual patients and asked about their injuries and affiliation with Hamas, among other questions.
Some passengers were taken off the bus. Soldiers shone lights in their faces and spoke in Arabic and Hebrew. In Hebrew, they said, “You are under the protection of the Israeli army; you can ask for help from us.”
Abu Salmiya, the head of the hospital, was arrested along with two ambulance drivers soon after the search.
On Wednesday, the Israeli military released videos purporting to show underground passageways and rooms that appeared to be extensions of a tunnel the military first uncovered last week beneath the grounds of al-Shifa. The videos show bathrooms and smaller rooms containing metal cots and an air conditioning unit but little concrete evidence to indicate what they were used for.
The Israeli military has been under heavy international pressure to prove its claims that Hamas constructed a large and elaborate command and control system under the hospital complex.
The military has escorted journalists, including from the Post, into the combat zone to view some structures, including a shaft within the complex walls. Reporters were not allowed enter the shaft or otherwise conduct independent inspections.
International law requires militaries to make clear distinctions between civilians and combatants and to take all possible steps to prevent civilian harm. Al-Shifa is the biggest hospital in Gaza, and thousands of civilians have sought medical care and shelter there. The IDF took control of the hospital facility last week following a raid.
Israel’s Supreme Court on Thursday continued to turn aside legal challenges to the hostage-for-prisoner swap, ruling against three petitions brought by victims advocates. Israel allows citizens who have been victims of militant attacks to challenge the release of prisoners, but the Supreme Court has never previously blocked a deal.
Under the agreement, Israel will release three Palestinians – women or teenagers – it now holds in its prisons in exchange for the safe return of 50 hostages. Israel has said it could extend the pause in bombing by a day for every additional 10 hostages who are released after the initial group of 50.
The agreement comes as the United Nations and other international humanitarian organizations are increasingly sounding the alarm over the situation in the embattled enclave after almost seven weeks of strikes.
“This is as bad as it gets,” Martin Griffiths, the U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator, said to CNN on Wednesday, citing how 4 out of 5 people in Gaza have been displaced. “Gaza is a global crisis.”
The Gaza Health Ministry said in a statement Thursday that more 13,300 people have been killed since the start of the war, with 35,180 wounded, and that about 6,000 people are missing. The figures, dated Tuesday, did not include figures from the al-Shifa and Indonesian hospitals, the ministry said.
The tally is the ministry’s first update of casualties in the enclave since Nov. 10, when communication failures and fighting kept it from maintaining a daily count.
Israeli attacks on medical infrastructure have been a recurring issue during the fighting and on Wednesday the toll from the shooting at a Doctors Without Borders convoy trying to evacuate wounded staff members from Gaza City rose to two, the organization said.
“I honestly don’t know how much more our staff can take,” wrote Natalie Thurtle, an emergency physician working with the organization, describing the lingering death of an injured staff member over four days after further requests for evacuation failed.
In a statement after the attack, MSF, as the organization is known, said the group said the evacuation convoy followed an itinerary provided by the Israeli army. After being blocked at a checkpoint for several hours, the convoy turned back and then came under fire near the MSF office. “The vehicles were clearly marked with the group’s large red logo,” staff said.
In a statement Thursday, the IDF said that the convoy of vehicles that was driving “suspiciously in their direction,” and that its forces “fired warning shots in order to warn the vehicles from approaching. No hits were identified.”
Ahead of the much anticipated pause, Israeli artillery struck several locations overnight and into Thursday, according to witnesses reached by the Post and reports of local journalists, from Beit Lahia in the north to Khan Younis and Rafah refugee camp near the Egyptian border.
Several rescue workers were killed in a strike for the second day in a row, according to reports in the northern refugee camp of Jabalya. The IDF said it had completed its encirclement of the camp, the largest in Gaza Strip. Reporters posted images of bodies lined up at the entrance of Kamal Adwan Hospital, one of the few remaining medical facilities functioning in the north.
Hezbollah and Israel also traded fire along the Lebanon-Israel border in clashes that have steadily escalated in recent weeks, fueling concerns of a wider war. Hezbollah strikes on Israel have reached as many as a dozen attacks a day in recent days. Five Hezbollah members, including the son of a senior Hezbollah official, were killed in an Israeli strike Wednesday night, a Hezbollah media spokesperson told the Post.
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George reported from Doha, Balousha from Amman.