Release of hostages needs ceasefire, Hamas official says

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Gaza/Moscow (Reuters) – An official of the militant Hamas group conditioned the release of hostages in Gaza to a ceasefire in Israel’s bombardment of the Palestinian enclave, launched after a deadly rampage into southern Israel nearly three weeks ago.

Israel says it is preparing a ground invasion, but has been urged by the U.S. and Arab countries to delay an operation that would multiply the number of civilian casualties in the densely populated coastal strip and might ignite a wider conflict.

Two U.S. fighter jets struck weapons and ammunition facilities in Syria on Friday in retaliation for attacks on U.S. forces by Iranian-backed militias since the Gaza war erupted.

An opinion poll on Friday suggested almost half of Israelis now wanted to hold off on a ground invasion out of fears for at least 224 hostages reported to be held there.

The Russian newspaper Kommersant quoted a member of a Hamas delegation visiting Moscow as saying time was needed to locate all those abducted by various Palestinian factions in the Hamas attack on Oct. 7.

“They seized dozens of people, most of them civilians, and we need time to find them in the Gaza Strip and then release them,” Abu Hamid said.

He said Hamas, which has freed four hostages so far, had made clear it intended to release “civilian prisoners”.

But this required a “calm environment”, he said, repeating an assertion that Israeli bombing had killed 50 of those held.

Hamas officials in Moscow said they viewed all their hostages as Israelis, whatever additional passports they held, and could not release any of them until Israel agreed to a ceasefire, according to Russian media.

Qatar meanwhile told the U.S. it was open to reconsidering the continued presence of Hamas in Qatar once a hostage release deal has been secured, a senior U.S. official said.

There was no immediate response from Qatar, which, in coordination with the U.S., is leading hostage mediation talks with Hamas and Israel.

Palestinian militants clashed with Israeli troops in at least two areas in the Gaza Strip, the latest of several small-scale incursions, Hamas-affiliated media reported. The Israeli military did not immediately confirm the reports.

Residents of central Gaza said they had heard an apparent exchange of fire as well as heavy shelling and air strikes along the border, with Israeli planes dropping flares and bombs.

Hamas’s al-Qassam Brigades said Israeli forces had attempted to land on a beach at the southern end of the Strip.

Israel said its fighter jets had struck three senior Hamas operatives who played significant roles in the Oct. 7 attack, though there was no confirmation by Hamas.

In early afternoon, rocket sirens sounded throughout southern Israel and an Israeli medic said three people had been wounded when a missile hit Tel Aviv.

Gaza Civilians Desperate

In the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza, an air strike killed the pregnant wife of a Palestinian lawyer, Jehad Al-Kafarnah.

“My life, my heart, I love you,” Kafarnah wrote, weeping, on the white sheeting wrapped around his wife’s body. He held the body of her 8-month-old stillborn child, also wrapped in white, in his arms.

As Gaza’s 2.3 million civilians grow more desperate under a siege that has cut supplies of power, water, food, fuel and medicine, the issue of aid comes before the 193-member U.N. General Assembly in New York on Friday.

Unlike in the U.N. Security Council, where resolutions on aid for Gaza failed this week, there can be no veto on the resolution by Arab states calling for a ceasefire, which will not be binding but will carry political weight.

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, says more than 600,000 Gazans have been made homeless.

Ten more trucks of food and medical supplies arrived in Gaza from Egypt, along with 10 foreign doctors who were the first to enter since Israel tightened its blockade nearly three weeks ago, a Palestinian official said.

This made for around 84 trucks in three weeks. The U.N. says Gaza needs around 100 relief trucks every day, and the official said negotiations were taking place with Israel, which wants to prevent resources reaching Hamas, to find a faster mechanism.

French President Emmanuel Macron said several European countries are looking to build up a “humanitarian coalition” regarding Gaza and Cyprus could serve as its base.

UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini said 57 UNRWA workers had been killed in Israeli bombardments.

U.N. human rights spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani became emotional when describing conditions for U.N. staff: “Many of them are sleeping out in the open … You have to make calculations about whether a ceiling collapsing on you or being hit by shrapnel is more likely to happen.”

A U.N. World Food Programme representative said only one of two bakeries it had contracted to feed thousands of displaced families had fuel to make bread, “and tomorrow there might be none”.

U.S. Strikes Syrian Bases

Calls for restraint stem not only from concern for Gaza’s civilians and Israeli hostages, but also fears that the crisis could spark conflict across the Middle East.

U.S. President Joe Biden ordered overnight strikes on two Syrian bases used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and militias that it backs, the Pentagon said, after issuing a rare direct warning to Iran not to attack U.S. troops.

Israel says Hamas killed some 1,400 people including children in its Oct. 7 rampage.

The health ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza said 7,326 Palestinians had been killed in the retaliatory air strikes, including around 3,000 children.

Biden has cast doubt on casualty figures provided by Palestinian officials in Gaza, but international aid agencies say they are broadly accurate and have been reliable in the past.

In a poll in Israel’s Maariv newspaper, 49% of Israelis said “it would be better to wait” before beginning a large-scale ground offensive, while 29% disagreed. A week earlier, 65% had backed a ground invasion.

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