Children walk past posters of Israeli hostages held by Hamas on a wall in Tel Aviv on Nov. 21, 2023. Credit - Ahmad Gharabli—AFP/Getty Images
The first truce in the weekslong war between Israel and Gaza-based militant group Hamas has officially started, and a group of hostages are scheduled to begin being released in several hours.
A spokesperson for the foreign ministry of Qatar—which had been, along with Egypt and the U.S., mediating negotiations for weeks—said in a news conference Thursday that the ceasefire would begin at 7 a.m. local time, Friday, and at 4 p.m., a first batch of 13 yet-unidentified hostages held by Hamas will be freed. Humanitarian aid to Gaza will follow “as soon as possible,” the spokesperson added.
Israel and Hamas came to an agreement earlier this week for the release of at least 50 women and children currently being held hostage by Hamas, in exchange for a brief pause in fighting and the release of 150 Palestinian prisoners.
The diplomatic breakthrough was approved by Israel’s Cabinet during a tense, six-hour late-night session, according to Israeli media, and announced late Tuesday by the foreign ministry of Qatar. While the deal was initially to take effect Thursday, a senior Israeli official told the Times of Israel that it was delayed because it still needed to be officially ratified.
A statement by the Israeli government said that 50 hostages will be released over four days, during which there will be a “lull in fighting,” and that “the release of every 10 additional abductees will result in an additional day of respite.”
“Those hostages of the same families will be put together in the same batch,” Dr. Majed al Ansari, the Qatari spokesperson, said on Thursday, explaining that hostages will be released “every day within a specific window of time.”
A senior Israeli official told Haaretz that Hamas will release 30 children, eight mothers, and 12 other women, all of whom are Israeli. Additional foreign nationals may be released as well, the official said, pending negotiations with other countries.
A U.S. senior administration official briefing the media earlier on Tuesday said that three Americans may be released, including two women and a child named Abigail who turns four this month. “Today's deal will bring home more American hostages,” U.S. President Joe Biden posted on X.
According to an unnamed Egyptian source quoted in U.K.-based news site Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, Hamas agreed in a side deal mediated by Iran to release 23 Thai hostages who were abducted on Oct. 7. (Tens of thousands of Thailand nationals work in Israel, many as fieldhands in areas near the border with Gaza). The Thai foreign ministry, however, declined to confirm such an agreement.
Israel, in turn, will free 150 detained Palestinian women and children, according to a statement released on Telegram by Hamas. A list of 300 detained Palestinians, including more than 120 minors, who could be released—most charged with throwing stones and none of whom have been convicted of murder, according to the Wall Street Journal—has since been shared by the Israeli government, giving the Israeli public 24 hours to appeal to the Supreme Court against the release of any particular individual.
According to the Jerusalem Post, after the initial group of 150 prisoners are released in exchange for the 50 hostages to be released by Hamas, an additional three Palestinians from the list will be released for every additional hostage Hamas releases.
Hamas added that Israel agreed to stop air traffic over the south of the Gaza Strip for the four days of military pause, while air traffic in the north will be halted for six hours daily, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
As part of the deal, Axios reported, Israel will also allow around 300 aid trucks to enter Gaza daily from Egypt, including the delivery of fuel during the pause. Israel has until now largely objected to the entry of fuel into Gaza out of concern that Hamas may seize it for military use. Israeli forces will remain in Gaza throughout any pause, not engaging in combat but “ready to act at any moment required,” according to Channel 12. A spokesperson for the Palestinian Red Crescent later told Al Jazeera that they were told the fuel will not be allowed into hospitals, claiming it would be limited to use for water and sanitation networks.
Humanitarian aid groups are calling for a broader end to hostilities, saying that pauses are insufficient to address the need in Gaza. “The humanitarian pause agreed between armed groups in Gaza and Israel must pave the way for a lasting ceasefire,” said the Norwegian Refugee Council, an independent organization that aids displaced people around the world. “Neither hostages nor access to humanitarian relief should ever become bargaining chips in political or military negotiations.”
Hamas official Abu Marzouk told Al Jazeera in an interview Wednesday that the militant organization seeks a permanent ceasefire and is ready for a comprehensive prisoner swap. Hamas’s initial statement announcing the deal, however, said: “At a time when we announce the reach of the armistice agreement, we confirm that our hands will remain on the trigger, and our triumphant battalions will remain on the lookout to defend our people and defeat the occupation and aggression,” promising to “establish an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.”
And before the Tuesday night Israeli Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized in a speech that, while there will be a pause in fighting, this does not mean an end to the war. “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,” he said. “We will not relent until we achieve the absolute victory.”
During Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, more than 1,200 Israelis were killed and over 200 taken hostage. In the weeks since, Israel’s attacks on Gaza have killed more than 13,000 Palestinians, per the enclave’s health ministry, in what U.N. experts have called “a genocide in the making.”
Israel has faced division over what concessions should be made in order to secure the hostages’ release. Hamas freed four hostages in October: two Americans, mother-and-daughter Judith and Natalie Raanan, and two Israeli women, Nurit Cooper and Yocheved Lifshitz.
While the Israeli government previously rejected international calls for a ceasefire, saying one would only be granted with the release of all hostages, relatives of hostages have advocated for an “all for all” deal in which all Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, which are estimated to number in the thousands, would be released in exchange for all hostages captured on Oct. 7.
With additional reporting by Solcyre Burga, Olivia-Anne Cleary, and Mallory Moench.
Write to Simmone Shah at firstname.lastname@example.org.