Israel, the United States and Hamas have reached a tentative agreement to free dozens of women and children held hostage in Gaza in exchange for a five-day pause in fighting, the Washington Post reported, citing people familiar with the deal.
However, both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. officials said no deal had been reached yet.
The hostage release could begin within the next several days, barring last-minute hitches, according to people familiar with the detailed, six-page agreement, the paper said on Saturday.
The report comes as Israel appears to be preparing to expand its offensive against Hamas militants to southern Gaza after air strikes killed dozens of Palestinians, including civilians reported to be sheltering at two schools.
Under the agreement, all parties would freeze combat operations for at least five days while 50 or more hostages are released in groups every 24 hours, the Post reported. Hamas took about 240 hostages during its Oct. 7 rampage inside Israel that killed 1,200 people.
The pause also is intended to allow a significant amount of humanitarian aid in, the newspaper said, adding the outline for the deal was put together during weeks of talks in Qatar.
But Netanyahu told a press conference on Saturday evening: “Concerning the hostages, there are many unsubstantiated rumors, many incorrect reports. I would like to make it clear: As of now, there has been no deal. But I want to promise: When there is something to say – we will report to you about it.”
A White House spokesperson also said Israel and Hamas have not yet reached a deal on a temporary ceasefire, adding the U.S. is continuing to work to get a deal. A second U.S. official also said no deal had been reached.
HOSPITAL “A DEATH ZONE”
Israel vowed to destroy Hamas after the Oct. 7 attack. As the conflict entered its seventh week, authorities in Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip raised their death toll to 12,300, including 5,000 children.
After dropping leaflets earlier in the week, Israel on Saturday again warned civilians in parts of southern Gaza to relocate as it girds for an onslaught after subduing the north.
Raising international alarm, Israel made Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City a primary focus of its ground advance in northern Gaza.
A team led by the World Health Organization (WHO) which visited Al Shifa on Saturday described it as a “death zone” with signs of gunfire and shelling. WHO said it was developing plans for immediate evacuation of the remaining patients and staff.
Elsewhere in the north, Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini of UNRWA, the U.N. aid organization for Palestinian refugees, said on social media platform X that Israel bombarded two agency schools. More than 4,000 civilians were sheltered at one of them, he said.
“Dozens reported killed including children,” he said. “Second time in less than 24 hours schools are not spared. ENOUGH, these horrors must stop.”
A spokesperson for Gaza’s Hamas authorities said 200 people had been killed or injured at the school. Israel’s military did not comment.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose government controls parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on Saturday said “hundreds of forcibly displaced people were killed” at the two schools in Gaza.
Abbas on Saturday appealed to U.S. President Joe Biden to intervene to stop the Israeli operation in Gaza.
Biden, who opposes a ceasefire, was looking to the end of the conflict, saying in a Washington Post opinion article that the Palestinian Authority should ultimately govern both Gaza and the West Bank.
Asked about Biden’s proposal, Netanyahu told reporters in Tel Aviv the Palestinian Authority in its current form was not capable of being responsible for Gaza. Israel has not disclosed a strategy for Gaza after the war.
An Israeli offensive in the south could compel hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled Gaza City in the north to uproot again, along with residents of Khan Younis, a city of more than 400,000, compounding a dire humanitarian crisis.
The conflict has already displaced around two-thirds of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million.
An advance into southern Gaza may prove more complicated and deadlier than in the north, however, with Hamas militants dug into the Khan Younis region, a senior Israeli source and two top ex-officials said.
Early Saturday, an air strike in a busy residential district of Khan Younis killed 26 Palestinians and wounded 23, health officials said.
Eyad Al-Zaeem told Reuters he lost his aunt, her children and her grandchildren in the attack. They all had evacuated from northern Gaza on Israeli army orders only to die where the army told them they could be safe, he said.
“All of them were martyred. They had nothing to do with the (Hamas) resistance,” said Zaeem, standing outside the morgue at Nasser Hospital, where the 26 bodies were laid out before they were to be carried by loved ones to burials.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, James Mackenzie Henriette Chacar and Reuters bureaux; Writing by Doina Chiacu and Kim Coghill; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and William Mallard)