First Captives Freed in Tense Gaza Truce Between Israel and Hamas

Hamas freed two dozen hostages held in Gaza and Israel released nearly 40 imprisoned Palestinians on Friday, completing the first exchange in a tense, temporary truce that halted the fighting after seven weeks of war.

The cease-fire, reached after weeks of painstaking negotiation with the help of Egypt, Qatar and the United States, had held for a few hours before word emerged that anyone had been released. Then came a flurry of announcements from Egypt, Qatar and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which helped receive hostages after their weeks in captivity in Gaza.

The hostages released included 13 Israelis, several children among them, as well as 10 Thais and one Filipino — reflecting the large number of foreign farm laborers in Israel, and the far-reaching effects of the Hamas attacks on Israel last month.

Not long after those hostages were declared free, Qatar’s Foreign Ministry said that 39 Palestinian women and minors imprisoned by the Israeli authorities had been released. All the hostages freed by Hamas were expected to be swiftly moved to Israel to receive urgent medical care.

The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said in a statement that the military and the country’s foreign intelligence agency, Mossad, had received a list of hostages slated to be released on Saturday, and that security officials were reviewing the list.

Israel has said that it would extend the cease-fire by a day for every 10 additional hostages that Hamas releases. Hamas has not commented directly on the offer but its top political official, Ismail Haniyeh, said his group was committed to making the truce work.

An extended pause in the fighting would give Gaza’s civilians the first sustained relief after nearly 50 days of relentless bombardment, which has shattered homes, debilitated hospitals and left more than two million people in desperate conditions.

But it would also allow both Israel and Hamas to try to better their positions for battles to come. Hamas, which has been battered by Israel’s bombardment and ground invasion, could try to regroup its forces and fortify the places it holds. Israel may be able to glean new intelligence during the pause, and so make plans for its next phase of the war. Israeli leaders have vowed to eradicate Hamas, and the group has said “our hands will remain on the trigger.”

The exchange of captives, and the arrival of the biggest aid convoy Gaza has received in weeks, was cautiously welcomed by President Biden and set off waves of emotion in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. Tension broke into relief for some families and anguish for those whose loved ones were not among those released.

Hundreds of people gathered late Friday outside the Ofer prison in the occupied West Bank, waiting for the first group of Palestinians to be released, and Israeli forces fired tear gas several times to keep people back from the gates.

Relatives and friends of Palestinian prisoners waiting for their release on a hill overlooking the Israeli Ofer military facility in the occupied West Bank on Friday.Credit…Jaafar Ashtiyeh/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Kibbutz Nir Oz, one of the Israeli communities attacked by Hamas in its devastating assaults last month, said it had welcomed the return of 12 people — including four children younger than 10, and five people in their 70s and 80s.

“They have all reunited with their families, after being held hostage for 49 days. We wish them all good health,” the kibbutz said in a statement.

But it added that dozens more people had been abducted from Nir Oz alone, and that many families were still deeply concerned for their well-being: “We are anxiously waiting and wishing for the return of all the hostages from around the country.”

Fatina Salman, 42, whose eldest daughter, Malak, 24, was on the list of Palestinians expected to be freed, said in a phone interview that she had rejoiced at the news. “It’s an indescribable feeling and it’s great joy that only God is aware of,” she said, but she added, “It’s shame on us to celebrate while our people in Gaza are dying.”

She said her daughter, then 16, was detained by the Israeli police in 2016 at the Damascus gate of the Aqsa Mosque compound. According to an Israeli government website listing the 300 prisoners who might be released as part of the hostage exchange, Malak Salman was convicted of attempted murder and a knife charge in a civilian court.

As a bus of Palestinian prisoners left Ofer prison, the crowd at the entrance surrounded the bus and cheered. One man jumped atop the bus, hoisting two Hamas flags, and some in the crowd began chanting: “The people want Hamas! The people want Hamas!”

The first day of the cease-fire also lifted the hopes of aid groups and U.N. officials that the pause in fighting would allow far more food, medicine, clean water and fuel into Gaza, where Israel’s siege, bombardment and ground invasion have left more than two million people in the grips of a dire humanitarian crisis. OCHA, the U.N. humanitarian agency, said that more than 130 truckloads of aid were offloaded at the U.N.’s reception point in Gaza, calling the operation “the biggest humanitarian convoy” received since Oct. 7.

Palestinians returning to a Gaza town where their homes had been destroyed or damaged by airstrikes.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times

Hopes were tempered, though, by Israeli leaders’ vows that, once the cease-fire ends, Israel will once again pursue its goal of destroying Hamas.

In a statement released late Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said that his country was “committed to the return of all of our hostages.” He added, “That is one of the war’s objectives, and we are committed to achieving all of the war’s objectives.”

The cease-fire deal calls for Hamas to return 50 of the women and children taken hostage during its Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, and for Israel to release 150 imprisoned Palestinian women and teenagers. The exchange would occur in phases across the four days of the cease-fire. The Israeli government has said that the hostages would be freed in four groups during the truce, each with at least 10 people.

The deal also includes an increase in humanitarian aid for Gaza. In addition, Israel said its warplanes would not fly over southern Gaza for the duration of the cease-fire, and would not fly over the northern part of the territory, where Israel had ordered evacuations and focused its ground invasion, for six hours each day.

Israeli soldiers arriving in southern Israel after exiting the Gaza Strip through the border fence on Friday.Credit…Gil Cohen-Magen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“We expect more hostages to be released tomorrow, and more after that,” President Biden said in remarks on Friday. He said that U.S. officials expect “dozens of hostages will be returned to their families,” including Americans, but that they do not know the names or conditions of those hostages.

Mr. Biden added that he had pressed Mr. Netanyahu on reducing the number of civilian casualties in Gaza; that the cease-fire created an opportunity to deliver “lifesaving supplies”; and that he hoped Arab leaders would impose pressure on Hamas to ease the crisis.

“I don’t trust Hamas to do anything,” he said. “I only trust Hamas to respond to pressure.”

Even as Israeli warplanes stopped flying over Gaza for the first time in weeks, conditions remained tense and desperate in the territory. As some Palestinians who had fled northern Gaza tried to return on foot to their homes, Israeli forces on the ground opened fire on them, according to witnesses, an Egyptian official and some of those injured.

The Israeli military would not answer questions about whether its forces shot and killed Palestinians trying to go back to their homes. It said its forces were “stationed along the designated operational lines of the pause” in accordance with the agreement.

“They said there is a cease-fire. What cease-fire?” said Kareem al-Nasir, 30, who said Israeli forces had fired as he and other Palestinians tried to return to northern Gaza. Mr. al-Nasir said he was shot in the leg and was unable to walk.

But the cease-fire appeared to hold well enough to satisfy Israel and Hamas, allowing not only the release of prisoners but also one of the biggest aid deliveries Gaza has received since the start of the war. Aid workers warned, though, that Friday’s convoy fell significantly short of the 500 trucks that typically entered the territory every day before the war. Israel said that eight aid trucks contained fuel and cooking gas, a small but significant amount for the territory.

A family watching a news broadcast covering the return of 13 Israeli hostages held in Gaza, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art plaza, which has become a gathering point for demonstrations in support of the hostages and the missing.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Fuel shortages have caused hospitals to close, stalled the distribution of aid, hindered the ability to prepare food and pump water, and forced two of Gaza’s cellular networks to halt service, contributing to communications blackouts in the enclave.

Thailand’s Foreign Ministry said that the released Thais would go first to a military base in Israel and then a medical center, where they would remain under medical supervision for 48 hours without access to outsiders. Twenty-six Thai nationals were kidnapped and 39 were killed in the Oct. 7 Hamas-led assault on Israel, which the Israeli authorities say killed about 1,200 people.

Qatar began the effort for the release of Thai captives in a separate mediation with Hamas after the Thai foreign minister visited Doha, Qatar, on Oct. 31, according to two officials briefed on the talks. The Egyptians also helped, they said. The United States did not play a role in these negotiations.

The talks were kept separate from the ones on Israeli and dual-nationality hostages, primarily women and children. The Thai hostages were all men, one of the officials said, and Hamas has generally been resistant to releasing adult male hostages.

Outside of Israelis and Palestinians, Thai nationals have suffered the heaviest toll in the war. Thailand is the largest source of foreign farm labor in Israel — more than 30,000 people from impoverished, rural regions were working in Israel’s agricultural sector before the attack, with thousands more undocumented.

Red Crescent ambulances waiting for coordination with the Israeli side to enter Gaza City to evacuate the wounded, on Friday.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times

Top Thai officials have traveled to Qatar and Egypt to coordinate efforts on behalf of the Thai hostages; the prime minister spoke with Mr. Netanyahu by phone, and his foreign minister met with his counterpart from Iran, a major backer of Hamas.

In late October, Thailand dispatched a delegation made up of members of its Muslim minorities to Tehran to hold talks with Hamas in a bid to secure the hostages’ release. Areepen Uttarasin, a lead negotiator, told reporters that he had stressed the innocence of Thai nationals.

“They assured me that they were taking good care of them, but they couldn’t tell me the release date,” he said. “They were waiting for the right time.”

Reporting was contributed by Adam Goldman, Vivian Yee, Karen Zraick, Iyad Abuheweila, Hiba Yazbek, Rawan Sheikh Ahmad, Johnatan Reiss, Edward Wong, Sui-Lee Wee, Ryn Jirenuwat, Abu Bakr Bashir, and Julian Barnes.

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