Hamas was preparing to release more than a dozen hostages Saturday for several dozen Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, part of an exchange on the second day of a temporary cease-fire that has allowed critical humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip and given civilians their first respite after seven weeks of war.
While uncertainty remained around the details of the exchange, there was optimism, too, amid the scenes of joyous families reuniting on both sides. On the first day of the four-day truce, Hamas released 24 of the about 240 hostages taken during its Oct. 7 attack on Israel, and Israel freed 39 Palestinians from prison. Those freed in Gaza were 13 Israelis, 10 Thais and a Filipino.
The war erupted when several thousand Hamas militants stormed into southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking scores of hostages, including babies, women and older adults, as well as soldiers.
Israeli leaders have said they would resume fighting eventually and not stop until Hamas, which has controlled Gaza for the past 16 years, is crushed. Israeli officials have argued that only military pressure can bring the hostages home. But the government is under pressure from hostages’ families to make the release of the remaining captives the top priority.
More than 13,300 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli offensive, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza government. Women and minors have consistently made up around two-thirds of the dead, though the latest number was not broken down. The figure does not include updated numbers from hospitals in the north, where communications have broken down.
On Saturday, Hamas provided mediators Egypt and Qatar with a list of 14 hostages to be released, and it has been passed to Israel, according to a Egyptian official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to talk about details of the ongoing negotiations. A second Egyptian official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the details. The head of Egypt’s government press office and the state-run Qahera news outlet said 13 hostages would be exchanged for 39 prisoners.
Under the truce agreement, Hamas will release one Israeli hostage for every three prisoners freed. Israel’s Prison Service said earlier Saturday it was preparing 42 prisoners for release. It was not immediately clear how many non-Israeli captives may also be released.
Overall, Hamas is to release at least 50 Israeli hostages, and Israel 150 Palestinian prisoners, during the four-day truce, all woman and minors.
Israel has said the truce can be extended an extra day for every additional 10 hostages freed — something U.S. President Biden said he hoped would occur.
Separately, a Qatari delegation arrived in Israel on Saturday to coordinate with parties on the ground and “ensure the deal continues to move smoothly,” according to a diplomat briefed on the visit. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details with the media.
The start of the truce Friday morning brought the first quiet for 2.3 million Palestinians reeling from relentless Israeli bombardment that has killed thousands, driven three-quarters of the population from their homes and leveled residential areas. Rocket fire from Gaza militants into Israel went silent as well.
For Emad Abu Hajer, a resident of the Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza City area, the pause meant he could again search through the rubble of his home, which was flattened in an Israeli attack last week.
He found the bodies of a cousin and nephew, bringing the death toll in the attack to 19. With his sister and two other relatives still missing, he resumed his digging Saturday.
“We want to find them and bury them in dignity,” he said.
The United Nations said the pause enabled it to scale up the delivery of food, water, and medicine to the largest volume since the resumption of aid convoys on Oct. 21. It was also able to deliver 34,078 gallons of fuel — just over 10% of the daily pre-war volume — as well as cooking gas, a first since the war began.
In the southern city of Khan Younis on Saturday, a long line of people with containers waited outside a filling station. Hossam Fayad lamented that the pause in fighting was only for four days.
“I wish it could be extended until people’s conditions improved,” he said.
For the first time in over a month, aid reached northern Gaza, the focus of Israel’s ground offensive. The Palestinian Red Crescent said 61 trucks carrying food, water and medical supplies headed there on Saturday, the largest aid convoy to reach the area since the start of the war.
The U.N. said it and the Palestinian Red Crescent were also able to evacuate 40 patients and family members from a hospital in Gaza City, where much of the fighting has taken place, to a hospital in Khan Younis.
The relief brought by the cease-fire has been tempered, however, for both sides. For Israelis, by the fact that not all hostages will be freed. For Palestinians, by the brevity of the pause.
The freed Israelis included nine women and four children 9 and under. They were taken to Israeli hospitals for observation and were declared to be in good condition.
At a plaza dubbed “Hostages Square” in Tel Aviv, a crowd of Israelis celebrated the good news but pressed for more. “Don’t forget the others because it’s getting harder, harder and harder. It’s heartbreaking,” said Neri Gershon, a Tel Aviv resident.
The hostages included multiple generations. Nine-year-old Ohad Munder-Zichri was freed along with his mother, Keren Munder, and grandmother, Ruti Munder, during the child’s visit to his grandparents at the kibbutz where about 80 people — nearly a quarter of community residents — are believed to have been taken.
The hostages’ plight has raised anger among some families that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was not doing enough to bring them home.
Hours later, 24 Palestinian women and 15 teenage boys held in Israeli prisons in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem were freed. In the West Bank town of Beitunia, hundreds of Palestinians poured out of their homes to celebrate, honking horns and setting off fireworks.
The teenagers had been jailed for minor offenses like throwing stones. The women included several convicted of trying to stab Israeli soldiers.
“It’s a happiness tainted with sorrow because our release from prison came at the cost of the lives of martyrs and the innocence of children,” said one released Palestinian prisoner, Aseel Munir al-Titi.
According to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, an advocacy group, Israel is holding 7,200 Palestinians, including about 2,000 arrested since the start of the war.