By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams
CAIRO/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -A truce between Israel and Hamas in Gaza that was on the verge of expiring was extended by two days, mediator Qatar said on Monday, raising the prospect the Palestinian group will free hostages beyond the 69 released since Friday.
The truce will prolong a pause in the seven-week war between Israel and the Islamist Palestinian group, which triggered the latest conflict with an Oct. 7 incursion into southern Israel in which it killed about 1,200 people and took roughly 240 hostage.
Each day since the four-day truce began on Friday, Hamas has released some of the hostages while Israel has freed some of the Palestinians it holds.
Israel previously said it would extend the truce by one day for every 10 more hostages released, providing some respite to Palestinians in the Mediterranean seaside strip from the war, which has killed thousands and laid waste to the enclave.
“An agreement has been reached to extend the humanitarian pause for an additional two days in the Gaza Strip,” a Qatari foreign ministry spokesperson said in a post on social media platform X. Hamas also said it had agreed a two-day extension.
There was no immediate comment from Israel, but a White House official confirmed agreement had been reached.
U.S. President Joe Biden thanked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as Qatar and Egypt – who have facilitated indirect talks between the two sides – for a pact that would free more hostages and allow more aid into Gaza.
On Monday, the Israeli military said 11 Israeli hostages – the latest to be freed under the terms of the original truce that was due to end on Monday – had arrived in Israel.
Qatar said the newly released hostages, all dual citizens, included three with French nationality, two with German nationality and six Argentine citizens.
Hamas said earlier it had received a list of 33 Palestinians to be released from Israeli jails in return. It said these included three female prisoners and 30 minors.
With the latest releases, Hamas has freed a total of 69 people since Friday, including both Israelis and non-Israelis.
Under the terms of existing four-day truce agreement, Hamas was due to release in total 50 Israeli women and children held hostage in Gaza. There was no limit in the deal on the number of foreigners it could release.
Prior to the latest releases, an Israeli spokesperson said the total number of hostages still held in Gaza on Monday was 184, including 14 foreigners and 80 Israelis with dual nationality.
U.S. national security spokesperson John Kirby said on CNN the White House did not believe any Americans would be among the latest group to be freed from Gaza, where Washington says seven to nine U.S. citizens are being held.
A senior U.S. official said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken would visit Israel, the West Bank and the United Arab Emirates this week to discuss sustaining aid flows to Gaza and freeing all hostages as well as U.S. principles for the future of Gaza and the need for an independent Palestinian state.
None of the announcements specified how many hostages would be released under the extended agreement, but earlier the head of Egypt’s State Information Service, Diaa Rashwan, said the deal being negotiated would include the release of 20 Israeli hostages and 60 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
The truce agreed last week was the first halt in fighting in the seven weeks since Hamas attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages back into Gaza, according to Israeli tallies.
In response to that attack, Israel has bombarded the enclave and mounted a ground offensive in the north. More than 15,000 Palestinians have been killed, Gaza’s Hamas-run government says, and hundreds of thousands displaced.
Wide areas of the enclave have been flattened by Israeli airstrikes and artillery bombardments, and a humanitarian crisis has unfolded as supplies of food, fuel, drinking water and medicine run out.
Netanyahu said at the weekend that once the truce ended, “We will return with full force to achieve our goals: the elimination of Hamas; ensuring that Gaza does not return to what it was; and of course the release of all our hostages.”
The truce agreement also allowed for aid trucks to enter Gaza.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the extension of the truce as “a glimpse of hope and humanity,” but said two days was not enough time to meet Gaza’s aid needs.
“I strongly hope that this will enable us to increase even more the humanitarian aid to the people in Gaza that (are) suffering so much – knowing that even with that additional amount of time, it will be impossible to satisfy all the dramatic needs of the population,” Guterres told reporters.
Palestinians in Gaza had earlier said they were praying for an extension of the truce. Some were visiting homes reduced to rubble by weeks of intensive Israeli bombardment, while others queued for flour and other essential aid being delivered by the United Nations relief agency UNRWA.
Displaced Palestinian woman Um Mohammed said life was hard for people still living in the north of the enclave, which has borne the brunt of Israel’s ground invasion so far.
“People up there are searching for food. People want to live, to secure themselves for the coming days, because they are afraid, so they’re securing what they can,” she said. “And if you ask if they are restful or at peace, they are not.”
(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Lincoln Feast, Gareth Jones, Alex Richardson and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Nick Macfie, Angus MacSwan and Cynthia Osterman)