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Hamas is expected to release more hostages on Monday, the fourth and final day of a temporary truce with Israel, as pressure grows on the Israeli authorities to extend the pause in hostilities in order to secure the return of more captives.
The Palestinian militant group on Sunday freed 17 hostages, including 14 Israeli civilians, in exchange for 39 Palestinian prisoners, the third release under a deal brokered by the US, Qatar and Egypt that has temporarily stalled Israel’s war on Hamas in order to allow for the return of captives and increased flow of humanitarian aid to Gaza.
The success of the delicate hostage-for-prisoner swaps — which threatened to break down on Saturday — has elevated Israel’s national mood and raised hopes that the deal could be extended to allow for more civilians to be returned to their families.
The hostage releases have become a national obsession in Israel with near wall-to-wall media coverage, while thousands of Palestinians have gathered each evening at Ofer Prison, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, letting off firecrackers to celebrate the prisoners’ release and bolstering Hamas’s political standing.
Speaking at a celebration for the release of one Israeli hostage, Noam Alon, whose girlfriend Inbar Haiman was snatched from the Nova music festival, vowed to keep up pressure for the release of more hostages, “at any price”.
“We are expecting to see everyone freed, we want our government to do everything to continue the deal,” he said.
The Palestinian group has already released 40 Israeli hostages, some of them dual nationals, in batches of roughly a dozen each day. Under the four-day deal, Hamas is to complete the return of 50 Israeli civilians for 150 Palestinian prisoners. The accord’s original framing allows for it to be extended, with 10 more hostages to be released per additional day of ceasefire.
The lists of both hostages and prisoners scheduled to be released on Monday remained unclear, and Qatari mediators were working “with both sides to resolve it”, an official familiar with the issue said.
Netanyahu said on Sunday night that he would “welcome” the prospect of additional hostages being freed, without specifying their nationality. Hamas said in a statement it was seeking to extend the truce by increasing the number of “those released from imprisonment”.
An Israeli official said the Hamas statement and other information received from mediators were understood to mean that the Palestinian group would seek a greater number of and higher-ranking prisoners in exchange for each hostage.
Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups are believed to still be holding as many as 200 hostages seized in a devastating October 7 raid on southern Israeli communities that killed at least 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials. Israel has provided Qatar with a list of more than 90 women and children seized during the attack.
Israeli forces have captured vast swaths of northern Gaza with an aerial bombardment and ground invasion that has killed at least 14,800 people, according to Palestinian officials, and triggered a humanitarian crisis.
Qatar’s prime minister, who helped broker the deal, told the Financial Times that if Hamas were able to locate additional hostages, it was likely to trigger an extension of the truce.
The Palestinian group has also released some Thai and Filipino workers, as well as a Russian dual-national.
The swaps have opened a window for diplomatic mediation. Negotiators from Qatar, Egypt, the US and Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, have held talks in recent days, the Israeli official said.
Hamas has demonstrated its ability to test the boundaries of the deal. On Saturday the group delayed the release of hostages, saying not enough aid had entered Gaza, prompting families of the captives and protesters to assemble outside Netanyahu’s residence.
Within hours more than 100 trucks were let in, and a delayed release eventually took place, while Qatar — which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel and hosts Hamas’s diplomatic headquarters — sent mediators to Tel Aviv to monitor the situation.
Hamas has demanded that at least 200 trucks, including much-needed fuel and cooking gas, be allowed in each day, an amount that is stretching the logistical capabilities of aid organisations and Israeli security forces to check the contents of the convoys.
Netanyahu and his defence minister Yoav Gallant said on Sunday night that they were ready to resume hostilities against Hamas. The prime minister said he had informed US President Joe Biden that “we will go to realising our goals with full force” at the end of the hostage deal.