Jerusalem: Twelve more hostages were freed Tuesday from Gaza captivity in exchange for Palestinian prisoners under an extended truce, as mediators worked for a lasting halt to the seven-week Israel-Hamas war. Ten Israelis and two Thais were released, the Israeli prime minister's office said, with the army saying they were handed over to the Red Cross and were "inside Israeli territory".
Israel's prison services later said 30 Palestinian detainees were released under the truce deal.Masked and armed fighters, some from Hamas and others from Islamic Jihad reportedly handed over hostages to Red Cross officials in Rafah, near the border with Egypt.
International figures hailed the pause in hostilities and releases of captives as a cause for hope in the conflict sparked by deadly Hamas attacks that prompted an Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip. Israel and Hamas accused each other of violating the extended pause in incidents on Tuesday, though Qatari officials mediating in the conflict said this did not knock the truce off track.
10 Israelis, 2 Thais among freed hostages
As a two-day extension to the truce appeared to be holding on Tuesday, US and Israeli intelligence chiefs were in Doha, capital of Qatar, to discuss the "next phase" of the deal, a source briefed on their visit said. Qatar's foreign ministry spokesman Majed Al-Ansari said Tuesday's freed Israelis were nine women and a girl. They included a Filipina dual national and two Argentinean dual nationals.The two Thai citizens were freed in addition to the 10 Israelis under the terms of the deal.
Israel and Hamas are under international pressure not to return to all-out fighting when the latest truce ends on Thursday. The truce paused fighting that began on October 7 when Hamas militants poured over the border into Israel, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping about 240.
Israel's retaliatory ground and air operation in Gaza has killed almost 15,000 people, mostly civilians, according to the territory's Hamas government.
Truce violations alleged
Palestinian movements on Tuesday denounced what they dubbed "truce violations by the occupier", and an AFP journalist saw an Israeli tank fire three times in Gaza City's Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood as Palestinians tried to return to their homes.
The Israeli military described the shelling as "warning shots", saying a tank fired as suspected militants approached army positions. At least one person was hurt, the AFP reporter saw. The army also claimed that three explosive devices were detonated near its forces in northern Gaza, "violating the framework of the operational pause".
"In one of the locations, terrorists also opened fire at the troops, who responded with fire. A number of soldiers were lightly injured during the incidents," the army said, adding that its troops were positioned in compliance with the truce deal.
Qatar's Ansari reported "some minimal breaches" which, he told a news conference, "did not harm the essence of the agreement".
Israeli bombardments since October 7 have left buildings flattened in Gaza and residents walking through the rubble of ruined homes.
"I hope this truce will lead to a complete ceasefire, because we are fed up of sleeping outdoors in the rain, of losing our loved ones and having to flee," said Umm Mohammed, who was driven from her home in northern Gaza by the assault. "One day for sure I will return... and I hope that my house will be waiting for me," she told AFP.
Israel to rescue all hostages
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas and rescue all remaining hostages.
"The return of the hostages is a bright light for us all," army chief Herzi Halevi said in a video released by the military.
The release of dozens so far "is also further evidence of the results of significant military pressure and resolute ground operations, which created the conditions for the return of our civilians home", Halevi said.
Ansari said that Qatar would use the extension to work for a "sustainable truce".
The head of the CIA and the director of Israel's Mossad spy agency were in Doha to discuss the truce with Qatar's prime minister, a source briefed on their visit said, asking not to be named because of the talks' sensitivity.
The discussions aim "to build on the progress of the extended humanitarian pause agreement and to initiate further discussions about the next phase of a potential deal," the source added.
Before Tuesday's latest exchanges, 50 Israeli hostages and 150 Palestinian prisoners -- all women and minors -- had been released under the initial truce agreement. Another 19 hostages held in Gaza have been freed under separate deals since the truce began on Friday, including Thai workers and a dual Russian-Israeli citizen.
Among images of the hostages released on Monday, a video released by the Israeli military showed French-Israeli Eitan Yahalomi, 12, reunited with his mother, who gripped him tightly.His grandmother, Esther Yaeli, told the Walla news website he was held in solitary confinement for 16 days. "Now Eitan appears very withdrawn."
In Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, Palestinian prisoner Muhammad Abu al-Humus called his release "an indescribable joy" and kissed his mother's hand as he came home.
"I'm very happy. I hope that others will soon be released -- my friends, my cousins."
Call for Gaza aid
Israel views the truce as a temporary measure to secure hostage releases and says it plans to continue its military offensive against Hamas.
"We are committed to complete these missions: freeing all of the hostages, eliminating this terrorist organisation above and below ground," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
But Israel faces increasing pressure for a more lasting ceasefire and increased humanitarian aid to Gaza, where an estimated 1.7 million people have been displaced, according to the United Nations.
On Monday, US President Joe Biden said he had warned Israel that its expected offensive in southern Gaza must avoid the kind of mass displacement of civilians seen during the military's pummelling of the north.
The World Food Programme said it had delivered food to 121,161 people in Gaza since Friday, but that a high risk of famine remained.
"What we see is catastrophic," said WFP's director for the Middle East, Corinne Fleischer.
Meanwhile two Palestinian teenagers were killed in clashes Tuesday with the Israeli army in the occupied West Bank, said the Palestinian health ministry.
Since the October 7 attacks, more than 230 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank by Israeli soldiers or settlers, according to the ministry.