Gaza ceasefire to begin on Friday morning, with aid to follow afterwards

23 November 2023, 15:04

Israeli soldiers
ADDITION Israel Palestinians. Picture: PA

The first batch of civilians held captive by Hamas will be freed on Friday afternoon, Qatari officials said.

A four-day ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war will begin on Friday morning, with aid “going in as soon as possible”, Qatari officials have said.

Qatari foreign ministry spokesman Majed al-Ansari announced that there will be a pause in the fighting from 7am local time (5am GMT).

The ceasefire had been anticipated after a deal was reached, though details were still being sorted out over the last day.

Mr al-Ansari said the first batch of civilians held captive by Hamas will be freed at around 4pm on Friday local time (2pm GMT), including 13 women and children.

The diplomatic breakthrough promised some relief for the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza who have endured weeks of Israeli bombardment, as well as families in Israel fearful for the fate of their loved ones taken captive during Hamas’ October 7 attack that triggered the war.

The deal appeared to hit a last-minute snag when Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, announced a one-day delay late on Wednesday, without providing a reason. The ceasefire was originally set to begin on Thursday morning.

Mr al-Ansari said the two sides had exchanged lists of those to be released.

Meanwhile, the health ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza resumed its detailed count of Palestinian casualties from the war, saying more than 13,300 have been killed.

The new numbers were not fully broken down, but in past tallies, women and minors have consistently made up around two thirds of the dead.

Gaza bombardment
Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip (AP)

The figures do not include updated numbers from hospitals in the north, where services and communication largely broke down earlier this month.

The ministry said some 6,000 people have been reported missing and are feared to be buried under rubble.

The ministry does not differentiate between civilians and militants in its death tolls. Israel says it has killed thousands of Hamas fighters, without presenting evidence for its count.

The ministry stopped publishing casualty counts as of November 11, saying it had lost the ability to do so because of the collapse of the health sector in the north.

The truce agreement had raised hopes of eventually winding down the war, which has levelled vast swathes of Gaza, fuelled a surge of violence in the occupied West Bank, and stirred fears of a wider conflict across the Middle East.

Shifa Hospital
An underground tunnel found underneath Shifa Hospital in Gaza City (AP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue the war after the truce expires, with the goal of destroying Hamas’ military capabilities, ending its 16-year rule in Gaza and returning all of the estimated 240 captives held in Gaza by Hamas and other groups.

“We will continue it until we achieve all our goals,” Mr Netanyahu said, adding that he had delivered the same message in a phone call to US President Joe Biden.

Washington has provided extensive military and diplomatic support to Israel since the start of the war.

The delay in implementing the ceasefire dismayed uprooted Palestinians in Gaza, who hope to use the few days of quiet to visit homes they fled – or at least the wreckage of them – and to reconnect with families after the massive dispersal caused by the Israeli assault.

Many talked of trying to make short visits to homes in Gaza City in the north of the territory, though it was unlikely Israeli troops controlling the area would have allowed it.

Israeli troops hold much of northern Gaza and say they have dismantled tunnels and much of Hamas’ infrastructure there. On Wednesday, Israeli forces revealed what they said was a major Hamas hideout in a tunnel beneath Shifa Hospital.

The territory’s largest medical centre has been at the heart of a fierce battle of narratives over both sides’ allegedly reckless endangerment of civilians. Hamas and hospital staff deny Israeli allegations that Shifa was used as a militant command centre.

The military said on Thursday it detained Mohammed Abu Selmia, the director of Shifa, for questioning over his involvement in what it said were “extensive” Hamas activities in the hospital.

Gaza’s health ministry called on international bodies to intervene and said it would no longer cooperate with the World Health Organisation in evacuating hospitals.

Earlier on Thursday, Israel ordered the full evacuation of the Indonesian Hospital in the north, Dr. Munir al-Boursh, a health ministry official told Al-Jazeera.

Fighting has raged outside the hospital for days, and hundreds of people have already been evacuated to the south. It was unclear if the arrest of Mr Abu Selmia would affect those efforts.

Wreckage after bombardment
Palestinians walk among debris of buildings that were targeted by Israeli air strikes in Jabaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip (AP)

Israel has threatened to launch wider operations in southern Gaza, where most of the territory’s population is now located.

More than a million people, including hundreds of thousands who fled the north, have crammed into overflowing UN-run shelters with dwindling food, water and basic supplies.

For Hamas, the ceasefire would provide an opportunity to regroup after weeks of apparently heavy losses. Hamas leader Yehya Sinwar, who is believed to be alive and in hiding in Gaza, is likely to claim the release of Palestinian prisoners as a major achievement and declare victory if the war ends.

Under the truce deal, 50 hostages are supposed to be freed in stages, in exchange for the release of what Hamas said would be 150 Palestinian prisoners. Women and children would be released first, and Israel said the truce would be extended an extra day for every additional 10 hostages freed.

Fleeing Palestinians
Palestinians flee the Naser area (AP)

Israel cut off all imports at the start of the war, except for a trickle of food, water and medical supplies allowed in from Egypt. The lack of fuel has caused a territory-wide blackout, leaving homes and hospitals reliant on generators, which have also steadily been forced to shut down.

The war erupted when several thousand Hamas militants stormed into southern Israel, killing at least 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking scores of hostages, including babies, women and older adults, as well as soldiers, for whom Hamas is expected to demand a large number of high-profile prisoners.

More than 1.7 million people, three quarters of Gaza’s population, have been displaced in the war.

Many, if not most, will be unable to return home because of the vast damage and the presence of Israeli troops in the north.

Israel has barred imports to Gaza since the start of the war, except for a trickle of aid. Humanitarian aid groups operating in Gaza said the truce will prove too short and the Rafah crossing’s capacity insufficient to meet urgent needs.

By Press Association

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