Gaza Mediators Seek Cease-Fire Extension

Top officials from Qatar, Egypt and the United States pushed on Wednesday to lock in another temporary extension of the cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, seeing it as the best way to ease the embattled territory’s humanitarian crisis, secure the release of more Israeli captives and slow the war’s escalating death toll for at least a little longer.

But some officials briefed on the talks said they also hoped that the succession of short-term pauses would pave the way toward a larger goal: negotiations over a longer-term cease-fire between Israel and Hamas to bring the war to a close.

Amid international pressure to prolong the pause in fighting, Israeli leaders rejected out of hand the notion of a long-term truce, reiterating their vow to fight until Hamas and its leaders have been eliminated.

“In recent days I have heard a question: After completing this stage of the return of our hostages, will Israel go back to the fighting? My answer is an unequivocal yes,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement on Wednesday. “There is no situation in which we do not go back to fighting until the end.”

Many bloody weeks have passed since Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7 that left about 1,200 people dead and some 240 others captive in Gaza. Israel has responded with a vast air campaign and ground invasion that have killed more than 14,000 people in Gaza.

But for the past six days, relative quiet has reigned. Both sides have largely held their fire to allow for daily exchanges of hostages from Gaza for Palestinian prisoners and detainees from Israeli jails, along with the entry of more aid into Gaza.

As of Tuesday, Hamas had freed at least 85 hostages, mostly women and children, according to a New York Times tally, and Israel had released 180 women and teenage Palestinians. A new exchange began on Wednesday night, with 16 more hostages freed in Gaza.

The Israeli military said that two released hostages had been returned to Israel via Egypt late Wednesday, but it did not immediately identify them.

As the clock runs down on the current truce, officials from Qatar, Egypt and the United States have been meeting with Israeli officials and working to secure a deal for an additional cease-fire and more exchanges, lest the war resume when the most recent agreement expires early Thursday.

The U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, who was scheduled to travel to Israel on Thursday, said the Biden administration wanted the truce to continue because it “means that more hostages will be coming home, more assistance will be getting in.”

“Clearly, that’s something we want,” Mr. Blinken told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday. “I believe it’s also something that Israel wants. They’re also intensely focused on bringing their people home.”

Two people with knowledge of the talks in Qatar said that while the mediators were pushing for another short-term extension, they also hoped that continued exchanges would keep the war on pause for as long as possible.

One of those people also said the mediators expect that the longer the quiet lasts, the harder it will be for Israel to restart its offensive and extend it to southern Gaza, where senior Hamas leaders are believed to be hiding.

A large Israeli offensive in the south of the Palestinian enclave could be catastrophic for Gaza’s civilians. More than half of Gaza’s 2.2 million residents have been displaced, and most of them have moved to the south at the behest of the Israeli military.

Securing a longer-term truce faces many obstacles. The daily returns of hostages to Israel and Palestinian detainees to their communities have been intense emotional events for those on each side of the conflict. But so far, those exchanges have focused on Israeli civilians held in Gaza and women and minors held in Israeli jails, many of them not convicted of any crimes.

The negotiations will likely get more complicated once Israel and Hamas begin discussing the release of combatants.

Hamas captured a few dozen Israeli soldiers during the rampage it led through southern Israel on Oct. 7, according to Israeli officials. And Israel holds many high-profile Palestinian prisoners, including prominent members of Hamas and other militant factions convicted of serious crimes whose release the group has promised to pursue.

The price that each side will expect the other to pay to secure the release of its fighters will likely be much higher than it has been for the women and minors, a dynamic that one person briefed on the talks referred to as a change in the “exchange rate.”

A senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that 97 women and children had been taken hostage from Israel, and that if Wednesday’s release goes as planned, 70 of them will have been released. Israel is negotiating for an extension of the cease-fire and the release of the remaining 27, the official said.

But Israel has not been involved in any talks about a long term cease-fire or an exchange involving all the remaining hostages and prisoners, the official said.

In a phone interview, Zaher Jabareen, a member of the Hamas Politburo, said the group was still working with mediators to extend the cease-fire.

Hamas is ready to continue exchanging women and children captives, he said, but it will ask for much more when negotiating for captured Israeli soldiers as part of its goal to free all Palestinian prisoners.

“We need to finish this issue forever,” he said.

In Israel, Mr. Netanyahu is facing heavy pressure not to let up on Hamas, including from some right-wing members of his own government. On Wednesday, the national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, said that if Israel did not continue its war with Hamas, his political faction would leave the government coalition, weakening Mr. Netanyahu’s hold on power.

“Stopping the war = breaking apart the government,” said Mr. Ben-Gvir in a statement.

Mr. Ben-Gvir’s departure alone would not topple the government, but it would leave Mr. Netanyahu with only a very slim majority.

Exacerbating the agony in Israel over the hostages is growing concern over the fate of the Bibas family, a mother and her two young children taken captive on Oct. 7 who have become symbols for the country.

On Wednesday, Hamas’s armed wing said in a statement that an Israeli airstrike had killed all three: Shiri Bibas, 32; Ariel Bibas, 4; and Kfir Bibas, 10 months old.

Israel officials said they were assessing the accuracy of the claim. Other members of the Bibas family said in a statement that they hoped it would be “refuted by military officials” and thanked the Israeli public for its support.

The surging death toll and spiraling humanitarian crisis in Gaza have also added urgency to the talks. Most Gazans spend their days struggling to get food, water and other essentials, and the vast destruction caused by Israel’s offensive means that many of the displaced will have no homes to return to after the war ends.

Many Gazans have taken advantage of the past six days of relative quiet to stock up on supplies. Long lines snaked out of gas stations in southern Gaza this week, and merchants in Gaza City set up food stalls amid piles of rubble.

Residents say they often wait hours for simple commodities like bread, and they fear that their lives will become even harder if the war resumes.

On Wednesday, President Biden appeared to temper his strong embrace of Israel by suggesting that renewed fighting would benefit Hamas.

“Hamas unleashed a terrorist attack because they fear nothing more than Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in peace,” Mr. Biden said in a post on X, formerly Twitter. “To continue down the path of terror, violence, killing and war is to give Hamas what they seek. We can’t do that.”

Patrick Kingsley contributed reporting from Jerusalem, Sheera Frenkel and Talya Minsberg from Tel Aviv, and Shawn Paik from Seoul.