The handover of more Israeli hostages by Hamas is under way in Gaza, a Palestinian official familiar with the truce efforts told Reuters on Wednesday, the final day of a two-day extension of a truce in the Gaza war.
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement, an ally of Hamas, said earlier it had handed over several civilian hostages as part of an exchange deal that also involves the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
Two Israeli-Russian hostages released from captivity in Gaza arrived in Israel on Wednesday, Israeli authorities said, ahead of the expected release of another 10 hostages before the scheduled expiry of a ceasefire agreement with Hamas.
The two, named by the Israeli government as Yelena Trupanov, 50, and Irena Tati, 73, were released under a separate agreement between the militant movement Hamas and Russia, Israeli officials said.
The reported handover was overshadowed by an unconfirmed claim by Hamas, the largest militant group in Gaza, that a family of Israeli hostages, including the youngest hostage, baby Kfir Bibas, had been killed during earlier Israeli bombardment.
Israeli officials said they were checking the Hamas report about the Bibas family, a very sensitive issue in Israel where the family is among the most high-profile hostages yet to be freed.
Relatives of the Bibas family said they had been informed of the Hamas report. “We are waiting for the information to be confirmed and hopefully refuted by military officials,” a statement from the Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum said.
The Israeli military said that according to information provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross, two additional Israeli hostages were being transferred to them and were on their way to Israeli territory.
“Their release is in addition to the list of hostages that are scheduled to be released today,” a military statement said.
The hostages are among some 240 people seized by Hamas gunmen during a rampage into southern Israel on Oct. 7 in which they killed 1,200 people. Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in retaliation has killed more than 15,000 Gazans, according to health authorities in the Palestinian enclave.
Two Palestinian officials meanwhile told Reuters that talks were continuing over a possible extension of the truce, which currently is scheduled to expire early on Thursday, but no agreement had yet been reached.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking in Brussels on Wednesday, said he would work with the Israelis during a trip to Israel in the coming days to see if the temporary ceasefire could be extended.
An Israeli official said earlier it would be impossible to extend the ceasefire without a commitment to release all women and children among the hostages. The official said Israel believed that militants were still holding enough women and children to prolong the truce by 2-3 days.
Egyptian security sources also said negotiators believed a two-day extension was possible.
A Palestinian official said negotiators were hammering out whether Israeli men would be released on different terms than the exchange for three Palestinian detainees each that had previously applied to the women and children.
Lists of names
Families of Israeli hostages were informed on Wednesday of the names of those due to be released later in the day, Israel’s public broadcaster Kan reported, the final group to be freed under the truce unless negotiators succeed in extending it.
Gaza’s Hamas rulers published a list of 15 women and 15 teenagers to be released from Israeli jails in return. For the first time since the truce began it included Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as residents of occupied territory.
So far Gaza militants have freed 60 Israeli women and children from among 240 hostages, under the deal that secured the war’s first truce. Twenty-one foreigners, mainly Thai farmworkers, were also freed under separate parallel deals. In return, Israel has released 180 Palestinian security detainees, all women and teenagers.
The initial four-day truce was extended by 48 hours from Tuesday, and Israel says it would be willing to prolong it for as long as Hamas frees 10 hostages a day. But with fewer women and children held, that could mean agreeing to terms governing the release of at least some Israeli men for the first time.