Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has approved a deal to secure the release of 50 hostages in exchange for a ceasefire in Gaza.
At a late meeting, the Israeli prime minister vowed to continue the war against Hamas after the pause in hostilities and said the agreement had the full support of security officials.
The hostages’ return was a “sacred and top goal”, Mr Netanyahu said in a video message to the cabinet, “but we will not stop until we have total victory”.
All branches of the Israeli security services supported the deal which was then approved in a meeting of 38 ministers early Wednesday morning, local media reported.
It followed a series of cabinet discussions in which he is believed to have seen off a revolt by hard-Right coalition partners who oppose the release of Palestinian prisoners and the delivery of aid to the embattled enclave.
Addressing ministers before the final vote, Mr Netanyahu said: “We will continue the war until we achieve all of our war aims: To eliminate Hamas, return all of our hostages and our missing, and ensure that there is no element in Gaza that threatens Israel.
“In war there are stages, and in returning the hostages there are stages, but we will not relent until we achieve the absolute victory and until we bring them all back. This is my sacred duty, of all of us.’’
He also acknowledged US President Joe Biden’s help in improving the deal “to include more hostages and at a lower cost”.
An Israeli government source earlier told reporters that the agreement was expected to see the release of 50 Israeli citizens, mostly women and children, in groups of 12 or 13 per day.
In exchange, Israel would release Palestinian women and minors from prison and agree to a four-day truce in Gaza, as well as a significant increase in fuel and aid shipments into the Strip.
Hopes for a breakthrough soared early on Tuesday morning after Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader, said the group was “close to reaching a deal”.
Qatar, which has been a key mediator, said negotiations were at a “critical and final stage”.
“We are at the closest point we have ever been in reaching an agreement,” said Majed Al-Ansari, the foreign ministry spokesman.
Mr Netanyahu chaired a meeting of the Israeli war cabinet at 6pm local time, the security cabinet at 7pm and the full cabinet an hour later, having earlier acknowledged that “progress” had been made.
‘Release of Palestinian prisoners will bring disaster’
However, some of the prime minister’s far-Right coalition partners publicly criticised the move towards a deal.
Itamar Ben Gvir, the national security minister, said any agreement to release Palestinian prisoners would bring “disaster”, citing the more than 1,000 released in 2011 following the abduction of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, some of whom are thought to have taken part in Hamas’s Oct 7 massacre.
However, he and like-minded colleagues are not expected to be able to derail the deal.
Even once approved, families of the hostages are expected to have to wait a further 24 hours before it could come into effect.
This would be to allow legal challenges, most likely from the Israeli families of victims of Palestinian prisoners set to be released.
Liz Hirsh Naftali, the great aunt of three-year-old American hostage Abigail Mor Idan, said: “I will believe it when I see them walk out.”
Despite the notes of caution, the decision by the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross to travel to Qatar was taken as a positive sign, as the organisation is likely to oversee any prisoner exchange.
Purported figures of the number of Palestinians who could be released under the deal range from 100 to 300.
The agreement will be split into two phases, with the second stage leading to the release of dozens more Israeli hostages in exchange for a ceasefire lasting several more days, sources with knowledge of the talks told the Axios news website.
In addition, 300 aid trucks a day would be permitted to enter Gaza from Egypt.
Mr Netanyahu told his cabinet that a deal would include Red Cross access to the hostages not released, including the supply of medicine to them.
Although it is likely the deal would include a pause of IDF ground and air attacks in Gaza, Israel has been keen to rule out a longer-term ceasefire.
As well as going some way to appease an Israeli public which is furious about the security lapse of Oct 7, a deal would ease the diplomatic pressure on Mr Netanyahu amid increased international concern at the plight of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
Netanyahu indicates a push south inevitable
Despite the diplomatic groundswell of hope for a deal, Israel and the US appeared to clash on Tuesday on the next stages of the IDF’s operation in Gaza.
Mr Netanyahu indicated that, following a potential cessation of fighting, a push south was inevitable, despite most of the Gazan civilian population having fled there.
“The Israeli entrance to Khan Yunis [Southern Gaza] is not a question of if, but when,” he was reported to have said.
Meanwhile, the Times of Israel reported that the IDF had no plans to allow civilians back into the north of the enclave when it pushed south.
However, John Kirby, the White House National Security Council spokesman, said the US did not support Israeli operations moving to the south without a “cohesive plan” to protect civilians.
“I would just tell you that as they consider moving their operations to the south we have said we don’t support those kinds of operations,” he said.
Mr Kirby added that Washington wanted to see “a cohesive plan” to protect the “dramatically increased civilian population” in southern Gaza.
Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry says 13,300 people, including more than 5,500 have now been killed by Israel’s offensive, figures Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, described as “staggering and unacceptable”.
On Tuesday it was reported that all hospitals in northern Gaza were out of action and that there had been 250 Israeli strikes in the enclave on Monday night.
It came amid a demand from Saudi Arabia for the start of a peace process to establish a Palestinian state along the borders of 1967.