Last-minute negotiations between Israel and Hamas to extend the Gaza truce were overshadowed on Wednesday by an unconfirmed claim by Hamas that a 10-month old baby Israeli hostage and his family had been killed.
Shortly before the final release of women and children hostages scheduled under the truce, the military wing of Hamas said the youngest hostage, baby Kfir Bibas, had been killed in an earlier Israeli bombing, along with his four-year-old brother Ariel and their mother. Their father has also been held.
The date and circumstances of the alleged bombing were not immediately clear.
Israel said it was checking the claim, which was potentially explosive, as the family were among the highest-profile civilian hostages yet to be freed.
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“Hamas is wholly responsible for the security of all hostages in the Gaza Strip,” the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said in a statement.
Reuters could not independently confirm the Hamas statement. Relatives had issued a special appeal for the family’s freedom after the children and their parents were excluded from the penultimate group freed on Tuesday.
‘Human lives hang in the balance’
Families of the Israeli hostages due to be released later on Wednesday were informed earlier of their names, the final group to be freed under the truce unless negotiators succeed in extending it. Officials did not say at the time whether that included the Bibas family.
Gaza’s Hamas rulers published a list of 15 women and 15 teenagers to be released from Israeli jails in return for the hostages, among the approximately 240 people seized by Hamas fighters in their deadly raid on Israel on Oct. 7.
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For the first time since the truce began, the list of Palestinians to be freed included Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as residents of occupied territory.
So far, Gaza militants have freed 60 Israeli women and children captured on Oct. 7. In return, Israel has released 180 Palestinian security detainees, all women and teenagers.
Negotiators seeking to prolong the six-day truce in Gaza believe it can be extended for another two days, two Egyptian security sources said on Wednesday.
The number of civilian hostages held by Hamas who would be released under the extension was still being worked out, the sources said.
Negotiations for the release of civilian hostages were going well, but military hostages held by Hamas presented an obstacle, the sources added.
Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy said Israel would consider any serious proposal, though he declined to provide further details.
“We are doing everything we can in order to get those hostages out. Nothing is confirmed until it is confirmed,” Levy told reporters in Tel Aviv. “We’re talking about very sensitive negotiations in which human lives hang in the balance.”
Once the release of hostages ends, the fighting will resume, he said: “This war will end with the end of Hamas.”
U.S. hopes for prolonged truce
Qatar, which mediated indirect talks between Hamas and Israel that resulted in the ceasefire, on Tuesday hosted the spy chiefs from Israel’s Mossad and the CIA.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that he would work with the Israelis during his trip to Israel in the coming days to see if a temporary ceasefire could be extended.
Speaking at a news conference in Brussels following a NATO meeting, Blinken said the continuation of the pauses would mean more hostages to be freed and more assistance getting into Gaza.
“Clearly, that’s something we want. I believe it’s also something that Israel wants,” he said.
“We’re working on that every single day and I expect to take that up tomorrow when I’m in Israel with the government,” he added.
Blinken, who also will visit Jordan and the United Arab Emirates this week, said he would also be having conversations about the future of Gaza and a future two-state solution to the conflict.
Reports emerged Tuesday that the U.S. had asked Israel to take greater care to protect civilians and limit damage to infrastructure in any offensive in southern Gaza if and when the truce expires. Israel urged Palestinians in Gaza to migrate south in previous weeks during their air campaign.
Some 15,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began, many of them children, according to the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry in Gaza.
The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned, including on Wednesday, that overcrowding in Gaza could spread infectious diseases in the densely populated enclave. Several hospitals and clinics have closed in the enclave due to a lack of fuel and other resources.
“With severe overcrowding, the risks are increasing for epidemics of respiratory tract infections, acute watery diarrhea, hepatitis, scabies, lice and other diseases,” said World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
The comments from the White House represent a distinct shift in Joe Biden’s administration policy after strong domestic and international criticism. It comes a month after the White House said it had set no “red lines” for Israel’s response to Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks, with the U.S. committing substantial military aid to Israel.
The message has been delivered from the president on down, the U.S. officials told reporters on a conference call.
“We have reinforced this in very clear language with the government of Israel — very important that the conduct of the Israeli campaign when it moves to the south must be done in a way that is to a maximum extent not designed to produce significant further displacement of persons,” one official said.
It wasn’t clear what, if any, consequences Israel could potentially face for not heeding the U.S. warning.