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Will Israel extend the 4-day pause?

JERUSALEM: :Israel faces mounting pressure to extend a four-day pause in its war against Hamas, but military officials fear that a longer truce risks blunting its efforts to rout the Islamist movement.

After hours of delay and acrimony that underscored the fragility of the truce, a second tranche of 13 Israeli hostages was freed on Saturday by Hamas in exchange for 39 Palestinian prisoners — the same number as the previous day.

A total of 15 foreigners have also been released during the ceasefire – mediated for weeks by Qatar, the United States and Egypt – that marks the first breakthrough after seven weeks of relentless war.

Under the deal, 50 of the roughly 240 hostages held by the militants will be freed over four days in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners, with a built-in extension mechanism to prolong the process as long as at least 10 Israeli captives are released each day.

That increases the number of hostages returned — and there is strong domestic pressure within Israel to do so – but gives Hamas a longer window in which to regroup, recover, re-arm and ultimately return to the fight, analysts say.

It also increases diplomatic pressure on Israel from the international community, which will become steadily less willing to countenance a return to the pounding of Gaza and the resulting humanitarian crisis.

“Time works against Israel as always and against the IDF,” said Andreas Krieg, of King’s College London, referring to the Israeli military.

“On one hand you want all the hostages out knowing that you can’t get them out militarily and on the other you don’t want to lose completely the momentum of this war,” he told the Media.

And the longer a truce lasted, he said, the more the international community would lose patience with a continuation of the war, he added.

But the Israeli military is determined to pursue its objective of “crushing” Hamas. Visiting Israeli troops in the war-battered Gaza Strip on Saturday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant insisted the timeline for the truce was “short”.

“It won’t take weeks, it will take days, more or less,” he said, flanked by heavily armed soldiers. “Any further negotiations will take place under fire.”

The war began after Palestinian militants smashed through the highly militarised border on October 7, killing about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli officials, and triggering Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

Israel has defied international criticism of its Gaza offensive, which its Hamas rulers say has killed more than 15,000 people, mostly civilians, and left an unprecedented trail of destruction in the Palestinian territory.

“The real pressure (to prolong the truce) comes from inside Israel — from the families of the hostages,” said Arik Rudnitzky, from Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of demonstrators packed the streets of Tel Aviv in support of the remaining hostages, chanting “Now, now, now, all of them now!” and clutching banners that read “Get them out of hell”.

An Israeli military official said the country was committed to freeing as many hostages as possible but expressed concern that the longer the truce lasts the more time Hamas has to “rebuild its capabilities and attack Israel again”.

“It’s a terrible dilemma,” he told AFP, requesting anonymity.

The lead mediator in the negotiations for the pause in the fighting has been Qatar, whose foreign ministry spokesman Majed Al-Ansari told AFP there was a need to “maintain the momentum” for a lasting ceasefire.

“That can only be done when you have political will not only from the Israelis and Palestinians but also with the other partners who are working with us.”

US President Joe Biden, a staunch ally of Israel, on Friday said “the chances are real” for extending the truce, as he urged a broader effort to achieve a two-state solution with a viable Palestinian state existing alongside Israel.

With a presidential election next year, there was no stomach in Washington for a prolonged intensive operation “for months and months on end”, said Krieg of King’s College London.

“So the Biden administration needs to find an off ramp as well”.

“There isn’t a military solution to the conflict, you cannot win this,” he added.

Senior Hamas official Taher al-Nunu said the group was “ready to search seriously to reach new deals”.

But Hamas on Saturday delayed the handover of the second group of hostages for hours, accusing Israel of breaching the terms of the agreement – claims denied by Israel.

Hamas would “play the long game with the hostages to try to exhaust the card over the longest possible length of time and at the greatest price to Israel,” former Israeli intelligence official Avi Melamed told the Media.

It was hoping support within Israel for the Gaza Strip incursion would dissipate, and ultimately “international and internal pressures levied on Israel’s government will create the circumstance where Hamas can continue to exist, and rule Gaza even after this war ends.”

Independent Middle East analyst Eva Koulouriotis agreed.

“For Hamas, any scenario for this war that does not lead to an end to its presence in the Gaza Strip will be considered a victory,” she told the Media, “regardless of its human and material losses, of the extent of the destruction in Gaza, and of the extent of civilian casualties”.