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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 29 NOVEMBER 2023

Israel and Hamas trade accusations of ceasefire violations; freed hostages tell of grim conditions

Israel and Hamas trade accusations of ceasefire violations; freed hostages tell of grim conditions
Families of Israeli hostages arrive at the Sheba Medical Centre in Ramat Gan before the expected arrival of the hostages after their release by Hamas on 28 November 2023. (Photo: Amir Levy / Getty Images)

Israel’s military and the Palestinian group Hamas accused each other of violating the deal that brought their war to a temporary pause, highlighting the fragility of the agreement.

As those abducted from communities near Gaza on 7 October start to return home under a ceasefire with Hamas, they’re speaking haltingly about what they went through.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit Israel for the third time since Hamas attacked on 7 October, his office said, as he landed in Brussels on Tuesday for a Nato meeting.

The first of three military relief flights carrying aid for the Gaza Strip was set to arrive in Egypt on Tuesday, according to senior US officials, as the Biden administration seeks to escalate assistance for Palestinian civilians amid pressure from fellow Democrats.

Latest developments

Hamas releases 12 hostages despite claims of truce violations

Hamas has turned over 12 more hostages — 10 Israelis and two Thai citizens — to the Red Cross, according to the Israeli prime minister’s office, despite earlier competing claims of violations of the deal that brought their war to a temporary pause.

Red Cross representatives transferred the 12 freed hostages to Egypt, and their convoy was making its way to a meeting point with Israeli soldiers, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Earlier, the IDF said some of its soldiers were lightly wounded in three separate explosions and an ensuing shooting in the northern part of the besieged Gaza Strip. A Hamas official who is a spokesman for its military wing said “a field clash” took place after Israeli troops violated the terms of the ceasefire arrangement, without elaborating.

The group pledged to adhere to the truce as long as Israel stuck to its end of the deal. Israel’s military didn’t report any fighting that would indicate a possible escalation.

Yet the skirmishes didn’t bring a collapse of the deal to pause the fighting, which has been extended by two days beyond its original expiry on Tuesday morning. Hamas, which released about 50 hostages as part of the original agreement, is expected to free another 20 over the next two days, in exchange for a continuation of releases of Palestinian prisoners by Israel.

Despite disputes and delays, the truce held for four exchanges of hostages through Monday of 50 hostages in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners. An additional 18 hostages were released in separate agreements by Hamas with Thailand, via Iran, and Russia. Those freed by Hamas over the weekend included a four-year-old girl — a US-Israeli dual national — whose parents were killed in the group’s 7 October attack on Israel.

Blinken to make another visit to Middle East 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken would visit Israel for the third time since Hamas attacked on 7 October, his office said, as he landed in Brussels on Tuesday for a Nato meeting.

Bill Burns, director of the US’s Central Intelligence Agency, and the director of Israel’s Mossad were in Doha for a series of meetings initiated by Qatar to discuss the potential terms of a deal beyond the two-day truce extension, a person briefed on the visit said, adding Egyptian officials were also attending.

Israel and Hamas have agreed to pause fighting until early Thursday, extending their truce to six days. Blinken’s visit and US efforts have been focused on keeping the devastating conflict from spreading further in the Middle East.

Blinken’s talks are aimed at pressing for a long-term solution to the crisis including the creation of an independent Palestinian state, the State Department said in a statement late on Monday. The top US diplomat will also “stress the need to sustain the increased flow of humanitarian assistance to Gaza, secure the release of all hostages, and improve protections for civilians in Gaza,” it said.

First of three US flights carrying Gaza aid to arrive in Egypt

The first of three military relief flights carrying aid for the Gaza Strip was set to arrive in Egypt on Tuesday, according to senior US officials, as the Biden administration seeks to escalate assistance for Palestinian civilians amid pressure from fellow Democrats.

The flights will carry winter clothing, food, medical items and supplies specifically for children, according to the senior officials who briefed reporters about the plans on Monday on condition of anonymity.

The effort builds on previous commercial flights which transported aid to northern Egypt to be distributed to civilians in Gaza. Officials in Gaza have warned of a humanitarian crisis as Israel carries out an offensive aimed at eliminating Hamas in retaliation for the group’s 7 October attack. Hamas, which controls Gaza, has been designated a terrorist group by the US and European Union.

Israel hostages recount grim imprisonment in Hamas tunnels

Kept underground, not much food, poor hygiene.

Those are the conditions in which a 10-month-old baby and his four-year-old brother are being held, along with dozens of other Israeli hostages still in Gaza, according to Ofri Bibas, whose brother was kidnapped with his wife and two children.

As those abducted from communities near Gaza on 7 October start to return home under a ceasefire with Hamas, they’re speaking haltingly about what they went through.

The conditions were fairly grim — sleeping on plastic chairs, limited light, long waits to use a toilet. But despite their seizure amid extreme violence in which 1,200 people were killed, there are few reports of physical abuse of the hostages in Gaza.

The 10-month-old and his family have been handed by Hamas to a separate group, according to the Israeli army, which said some captives were being treated “like loot”.

The Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum said that Hannah Katzir, one of those released, lost 20kg in 50 days of captivity and didn’t receive the medication she needed. Others were given limited food  — rice, hummus and beans — and slept in crowded conditions. One freed hostage, 84-year-old Elma Avraham, has been in critical condition in hospital. Her pulse was 40 and she was covered in wounds, her daughter Tali Amano told The Times of Israel.

The reports, limited as they are, are beginning to answer questions about what happened to the men, women and children taken into Gaza during the attack. So far, about 70 hostages have been released, including 20 foreign nationals.

Israel’s internal security service, Shin Bet, issued a set of guidelines to hostage families regarding press interviews, urging them not to discuss details of where they were held, their daily routine or identifying details of the kidnappers. These were requests, however, not orders, and some are talking.

Some media cite hostages saying that Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas, met hostages in a tunnel and spoke to them in fluent Hebrew, assuring them of their safety. Sinwar spent two decades imprisoned in Israel where he mastered Hebrew.

A month ago, 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz, an early release, spoke from her wheelchair at an unplanned hospital news conference. She said she was hit with sticks by her captors as they took her by motorcycle into Gaza and then was forced to walk a couple of kilometres through what she described as a “spiderweb” of damp tunnels.

Another freed hostage, 25-year-old Israeli-Russian Roni Krivoi, told relatives that after an Israeli air strike damaged the building where he was held, he escaped and hid for four days, only to be handed over by locals, again to his captors.

Zohar Avigdori, whose sister-in-law and niece were kidnapped, said six family members who were released this week need to come to terms with the fact that some of their relatives were killed on 7 October, which they are just now learning.

“My sister-in-law’s brother, whom she went to visit, was murdered,” he said in an interview at the headquarters of the Missing Persons Families Forum in central Tel Aviv on Tuesday.

“It’s one step at a time, getting help readjusting to life, taking in and realising everything that has happened in those weeks and getting used to the fact that they are like reality TV stars now.” He said 2,000 people had lined the streets around one of his relatives’ homes when they returned.

For many families, especially those whose captured relatives are soldiers of either gender or adult men, there is little prospect of a release any time soon and no guarantee that their poor living conditions will improve. To date, aside from foreign nationals, no men have been released.

There have been touches of wry humour. Alex Danzig (75), an educator and historian of the Holocaust, has been lecturing fellow hostages, according to some who returned. His son-in-law said to Israel Radio, “Well, at least he now has a captive audience.”

Others are deeply worried.

“My father is almost 80 years old,” Noam Peri said of her father Chaim. “He is a brave man, but he is not a healthy man. He has survived a heart attack and he depends on medication. It’s very urgent to let them all out.”

Bank of Israel puts war cost at $53bn in fullest tally yet

Israel’s central bank laid out its most detailed assessment yet of the economic implications of the war with Hamas, as it holds off on interest-rate cuts in favour of stabilising markets.

An updated outlook from the bank’s research department put the conflict’s “gross effect” on Israel at 198 billion shekels ($53-billion), with defence expenditure comprising more than half of the total. The war’s fiscal price tag was previously estimated at 180 billion shekels in 2023-2024 by Leader Capital Markets, with the Finance Ministry saying it’s costing the economy close to $270-million every day.

The Bank of Israel’s in-house research team also lowered its economic growth projections and now expects gross domestic product to expand by 2% this year and next — compared with previous estimates for 2.3% in 2023 and 2.8% in 2024. The Finance Ministry has the same GDP forecast for this year, but sees slightly weaker gains ahead.

Alongside the new forecasts on Monday, the monetary committee left its key rate at 4.75%, in line with all forecasts. The shekel traded stronger against the dollar after the announcement. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War

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