JERUSALEM — Israel’s Cabinet on Wednesday approved a temporary cease-fire with the Hamas militant group that is expected to bring the first halt in fighting in a devastating six-week war and win freedom for dozens of hostages held captive in the Gaza Strip.
The deal calls for a four-day cease-fire, during which Israel will halt its military offensive in Gaza while Hamas frees “at least” 50 of the roughly 240 hostages it and other militants are holding, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said. The first hostages to be released are women and children.
“The government of Israel is committed to bringing all of the hostages home. Tonight, the government approved the outline for the first stage of achieving this goal,” the office said in a statement.
Media reports ahead of the vote said Israel would free some 150 Palestinian prisoners as part of the deal, but the Israeli statement made no mention of a prisoner release. It was not clear when the truce, brokered by the U.S. and Qatar, would go into effect.
Ahead of the early morning vote, Netanyahu said the war against Hamas would resume after the truce expires.
“We are at war, and we will continue the war,” he said. “We will continue until we achieve all our goals.”
Despite his tough words, the government statement said the truce would be extended an extra day for every additional 10 hostages released by Hamas.
A longer-term lull could lead to pressure, both international and domestic, for Israel to end its war without achieving its goal of destroying Hamas’ military capabilities.
The war erupted on Oct. 7 when several thousand Hamas militants burst across the border into Israel, killing at least 1,200 people and taking hundreds hostage. Most of the dead were civilians, while the hostages include small children, women and older people.
Israel responded with weeks of blistering airstrikes on Gaza, followed by a ground invasion that began over three weeks ago.
More than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed during the Israeli offensive, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run territory. It does not differentiate between civilians and militants, though Israel says thousands of Hamas militants have been killed.
The invasion has caused vast destruction in northern Gaza, including the metropolis of Gaza City, displaced an estimated 1.7 million people and caused a humanitarian crisis with shortages of food, medicines, fuel and other key supplies throughout the territory.
Israel has rejected growing international criticism and vowed to press ahead until it destroys Hamas’ military and governing capabilities and all hostages are freed. Hamas, an Islamic militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction, has ruled Gaza since ousting the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007.
Under Wednesday’s deal, Hamas is to release roughly 12 hostages each day. In addition to the possible release of Palestinian prisoners, Israel is expected to allow additional quantities of humanitarian supplies and fuel into Gaza, Israeli media reported ahead of the vote. Wednesday’s government statement did not mention aid shipments.
While the statement did not say when the truce would begin, Israeli media reports said the hostages could begin to be released as soon as Thursday.
The return of any of hostages could lift spirits in Israel, where the plight of the captives has gripped the country’s attention. Airwaves are filled with interviews with families of the hostages, who include babies and toddlers, women and children and people in their 80s with health issues.
The families have become a powerful force in Israel – staging mass demonstrations and marches pressuring the government to bring home their loved ones. They have made a central Tel Aviv square their headquarters, where evocative displays like a long white table with seats for all 240 hostages are meant to keep their plight in the public eye.
But the structure of the deal could weaken Israel from various directions.
Any lull would give Hamas and its shadowy leader, Yehya Sinwar, a chance to regroup after suffering heavy losses during the fighting, especially if Hamas drags things out with additional hostage releases.
Israel claims to have killed thousands of Hamas fighters, though it has not presented evidence, and destroyed parts of the group’s underground tunnel system. But Israeli officials acknowledge much of the group’s infrastructure remains intact.
A cease-fire could also add to the already growing international pressure on Israel to halt its offensive as the full extent of damage in Gaza becomes apparent. Even the U.S., Israel’s chief backer, has expressed concerns about the heavy toll on Gaza’s civilian population.
Some three-quarters of Gaza’s population has been uprooted from their homes and are staying in filthy, overcrowded shelters.
Many, if not most, will be unable to return home because of the vast damage in the north and the continued presence of Israeli troops there. That could lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster as people remain in shelters or are forced to live in tents through the cold, rainy winter.
And in Israel, the staggered releases of hostages risks triggering divisions between families of those who are freed and those who remain in captivity. Families of the longest-held soldiers, who include young women who served as spotters along the border, are likely to press the government not to resume the offensive until their loved ones return home as well.
“There are many families and many opinions,” Hadas Kalderon, whose two young children were abducted with their father, told Israel’s Channel 12 TV.
She said a deal could create openings for future agreements by building trust, but acknowledged there are dilemmas as hostages are selected for release. “Our responsibility is to return everyone,” she said. “But let’s be realistic.”
A lengthy truce could also affect Israel’s battle readiness. While the troops are expected to remain in place and the Israeli military said its battle plans remain intact, it will be difficult and risky for the army to leave its forces stationary and in place behind enemy lines.
Asked about a potential cease-fire, the army’s chief spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said: “The army will know how to maintain its operational achievements.”
While Hamas will likely declare victory, Sinwar will have little to celebrate. Even if he survives and Hamas somehow maintains power, he will emerge to vast destruction that will take years, if not decades, to repair.
In the meantime, fighting continued on Tuesday, with the front line of the war shifting to the Jabaliya refugee camp, a dense warren of concrete buildings near Gaza City that houses families displaced in the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation.
Israel has bombarded the area for weeks, and the military said Hamas fighters have regrouped there and in other eastern districts after being pushed out of much of Gaza City.
In southern Lebanon, an Israeli strike killed two journalists with Al-Mayadeen TV, according to the Hezbollah-allied Pan-Arab network and Lebanese officials. There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military. A separate Israeli drone strike in Lebanon killed four Hamas members, a Palestinian official and a Lebanon security official said.
The Israeli military has been trading fire almost daily across the border with Lebanon’s Hezbollah group and Palestinian militants since the outbreak of the war.
On Tuesday, the Health Ministry said that as of Nov. 11 it had lost the ability to count the dead because of the collapse of large parts of the health system.
It believes the actual death toll has risen sharply above the official number of 11,000. Some 2,700 people are missing and believed to be buried under rubble, and hospitals have continued to report deaths from daily strikes, often dozens at a time.
The Israeli military says 68 soldiers have been killed in the ground offensive.
By JOSEF FEDERMAN and JACK JEFFERY, Associated Press.
Jeffery reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Wafaa Shurafa in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip; Samy Magdy in Cairo; and Melanie Lidman in Jerusalem contributed.