Israeli forces and Hamas terrorists appeared to be abiding by a truce for a fifth morning on Tuesday, after a four-day ceasefire was extended at the last minute for at least two days to let more hostages go free.
A single column of black smoke could be seen rising above the northern Gaza war zone from across the fence in Israel, but there was no sign of jets in the sky or rumble of explosions.
Both sides reported some Israeli tank fire in the Sheikh Radwan district of Gaza City in the morning, but there were immediate reports of casualties. A spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces said: “After suspects approached IDF troops, an IDF tank fired a warning shot.”
During the truce, Hamas terrorists released 50 Israeli women and children as young as toddlers from among the 240 hostages they captured in southern Israel during a deadly rampage on Oct. 7. In return, Israel released 150 security detainees from its jails, all women and teenagers.
Hamas also separately released 19 foreign hostages, mainly Thai farmworkers, under separate deals parallel to the truce agreement.
Israel has said the truce could extend indefinitely as long as Hamas continues to release at least 10 hostages per day. But with fewer women and children left in captivity, keeping the guns quiet beyond Wednesday could require negotiating to free at least some Israeli men for the first time.
“We hope the Occupation (Israel) abides (by the agreement) in the next two days because we are seeking a new agreement, besides women and children, whereby other categories that we have that we can swap,” Hamas official Khalil Al-Hayya told Al Jazeera late on Monday.
That, he said, would entail “going towards an additional time period to continue swapping people at this stage.”
Israeli security cabinet minister Gideon Saar told Army Radio that the two-day extension had been agreed under the terms of the original offer, and Israel remained willing to extend the truce further if more hostages were released. Israelis would know when the truce was over because the fighting would begin again.
“Immediately upon the completion of the hostage-recovery framework, the warfighting will be renewed,” he said. “We have every intention of implementing the goals of the war as it applies to toppling Hamas in Gaza.”
The truce so far has brought the first respite to the Gaza Strip in seven weeks, during which Israel bombed swathes of the territory, especially the north, including Gaza City.
More aid was able to reach the territory, which had been under an Israeli siege.
Israel has sworn to annihilate Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group that rules Gaza, after its gunmen burst across the fence and went on a spree, killing around 1,200 people and seizing 240 captives.
Since then, Hamas-controlled health authorities in Gaza say thousands of Palestinians have been killed during Israel’s military campaign of air strikes and ground operations. Experts have cast doubt on the reliability of casualty numbers coming out of Gaza.
As Israel released the final 33 detainees under the original agreement on Monday night from its Ofer prison in the West Bank, its forces clashed with some of the dozens of Palestinians waiting outside.
Some of the protesters waved the flags of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another Palestinian terrorist group that seized hostages on Oct. 7. The Palestinian health ministry said one Palestinian was killed in the area. Israel had no immediate comment on the incident.
Israel added an additional 50 Palestinian women to its list of 300 detainees cleared for release under the truce, seen as a sign it was prepared to negotiate for more hostages to go free under further extensions.
Any release of male Israeli civilians would be expected to begin with fathers and husbands captured along with the children and women freed in recent days, like Ofer Calderon, whose daughters Sahar and Erez were freed on Monday.
“It is difficult to go from a state of endless anxiety about their fate to a state of relief and joy,” said Ido Dan, a relative, about the release of the two girls.
“This is an exciting and heart-filling moment but … it is the beginning of a difficult rehabilitation process for Sahar and Erez, who are still young and have been through an unbearable experience.”
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Russia Extends Invitation to Palestinian Factions for Talks in Moscow
i24 News – Russia has extended invitations to various Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Fatah, for discussions on the Israel-Hamas conflict and broader issues in the Middle East.
Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov announced the initiative on Friday, highlighting Moscow’s desire to engage with all major players in the region amid heightened tensions.
The invitation included a dozen Palestinian groups and is slated for “inter-Palestinian” talks scheduled to commence on February 29.
Bogdanov, serving as President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for the Middle East, emphasized the inclusivity of the invitation, stating, “We invited all Palestinian representatives — all political forces that have their positions in different countries, including Syria, Lebanon, and other countries in the region.”
Among the invitees are Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, alongside representatives of Fatah and the broader Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
The invitation comes at a critical juncture as the Israel-Hamas conflict continues to escalate, drawing international attention and concern. Russia’s proactive stance in convening discussions reflects its growing criticism of Israel and its Western allies, underscoring Moscow’s efforts to assert its influence in the region.
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Netanyahu: Those Who Want us to Desist from Rafah Op Are Telling Us to Lose
i24 News – Hamas drops its “delusional” demands, productive hostage talks could begin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday, stressing Israel would not agree to the terror group’s current demands.
WATCH: PM Netanyahu delivers a statement after Hamas suspended negotiations pic.twitter.com/nxISPb4JUm
— i24NEWS English (@i24NEWS_EN) February 17, 2024
“I insist that Hamas should abandon its delusional demands – and when it does, we will be able to move forward,” Netanyahu said in a statement live on TV.
“Those who want us to desist from the Rafah operation,” the leader said in an apparent reference to the U.S. administration of President Joe Biden, “are telling us we should lose. We won’t be dictated to.”
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Iran Unveils New Air Defense Weaponry
i24 News – Iran demonstrated new weaponry on Saturday, including what it said was the locally made Arman anti-ballistic missile system and the Azarakhsh low-altitude air defense system, said the official IRNA news agency. Saturday’s unveiling ceremony of the two vehicle-mounted systems was held in the presence of Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Ashtiani.
“With the entry of new systems into the country’s defense network, the air defense capability of the Islamic Republic of Iran will increase significantly,” said IRNA.
Video of the new Azarakhsh SHORAD engaging a target drone
— Iran Defense|نیروهای مسلح جمهوری اسلامی ایران (@IranDefense) February 17, 2024
The Arman missile system is said to be able to “simultaneously confront six targets at a distance of 120 to 180 km,” while the Azarakhsh missile system “can identify and destroy targets up to a range of 50 km with four ready-to-fire missiles.”
The announcement comes amid tensions across the Middle East, with Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis attacking vessels linked to the United States, UK and Israel in the Red Sea in a show of solidarity with the Gaza Strip.
— Press TV (@PressTV) February 17, 2024
The U.S. and its allies in the Middle East are concerned with Iran’s growing role at the international global arms market, The Wall Street Journal said on Friday. The transformation of the industry, boosted by Russia’s “purchase of thousands of drones that altered the battlefield in Ukraine, has helped Tehran scale up its support of militia allies in Middle East conflicts,” read the report.