Deal to release hostages looks set to begin Thursday
The deal, brokered by the U.S., Qatar and Egypt, will also include a four-day truce and the release of 150 Palestinian prisoners
Ariel Schalit/Associated Press
A deal to release 50 of the more than 230 hostages held in Gaza since Hamas’ brutal terror attack in southern Israel on Oct. 7 is set to go into effect on Thursday after the Israeli government and the terrorist group reached a mediated deal for a four-day pause in fighting.
Under the deal brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the U.S., Israel also agreed to set free some 150 Palestinian prisoners, and will allow greater amounts of humanitarian aid, including much-needed fuel, to enter the Gaza Strip, where the latest U.N. figures show that more than 1.7 million Palestinians are now internally displaced after seven weeks of fighting.
“The Government of Israel is obligated to return home all of the hostages,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement following marathon meetings of the war cabinet, the security cabinet and the government on Tuesday night.
“Tonight, the Government has approved the outline of the first stage of achieving this goal, according to which at least 50 hostages – women and children – will be released over four days, during which a pause in the fighting will be held,” the statement said. “The release of every additional ten hostages will result in one additional day in the pause.”
The statement added that Israel will, however, continue with the war “in order to return home all of the hostages, complete the elimination of Hamas, and ensure that there will be no new threat to the State of Israel from Gaza.”
In a separate statement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that part of the agreement will also include visits by the International Red Cross to those hostages who will not be released by Hamas, as well as a supply of medicine for them.
More than 1,200 people were killed on Oct. 7 when thousands of Hamas terrorists broke through the border fence from Gaza into southern Israel, attacking civilian communities, army bases and a music festival. In addition, some 240 people, including around 40 children, dozens of mothers and elderly civilians, were taken hostage and have been held captive in the Gaza Strip ever since. Several of those hostages have since been declared dead by the Israeli army as it presses forward with its military incursion inside the Palestinian enclave in a bid to destroy Hamas.
President Joe Biden welcomed the hostage release deal, saying in a statement, “Jill and I have been keeping all those held hostage and their loved ones close to our hearts these many weeks, and I am extraordinarily gratified that some of these brave souls, who have endured weeks of captivity and an unspeakable ordeal, will be reunited with their families once this deal is fully implemented.”
Leading the negotiations for the U.S. were the National Security Council’s Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk and Josh Geltzer, deputy assistant to the president and deputy Homeland Security advisor for the National Security Council. A senior administration official who briefed reporters on Tuesday said that negotiators “anticipate” that Americans will be included among those released in the coming days.
The president thanked Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi for their “critical leadership and partnership in reaching this deal,” as well as “the commitment that Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government have made in supporting an extended pause to ensure this deal can be fully carried out and to ensure the provision of additional humanitarian assistance to alleviate the suffering of innocent Palestinian families in Gaza.”
The government of Qatar also released a statement “confirming the success of its joint mediation efforts undertaken with the Arab Republic of Egypt and the United States of America between Israel and the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), resulting in an agreement for a humanitarian pause.”
“The starting time of the pause will be announced within the next 24 hours and last for four days, subject to extension,” the statement put out by the Qatari foreign ministry said.
The Qataris said that the agreement would include the release of 50 civilian women and children hostages currently being held in the Gaza Strip in exchange for the release of a number of Palestinian women and children detained in Israeli prisons. It also emphasized that the “humanitarian pause” will also allow the entry of “a larger number of humanitarian convoys and relief aid, including fuel designated for humanitarian needs.”
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Wednesday that casualty figures in the Gaza Strip had not been updated since Nov. 11 after the collapse of the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, but that the latest figure stood at 11,078, of whom 4,506 were children and 3,027 women. About 2,700 others have been reported missing, presumed trapped under the rubble, OCHA said, adding that more than 1.7 million people were estimated to be internally displaced, with some 930,000 sheltering in at least 154 UNRWA facilities across the Strip.
Hamas also welcomed the “humanitarian truce,” as well as the increase in aid saying in a statement: “The provisions of this agreement were formulated according to the vision of the resistance and its determinants that aim to serve our people and enhance their steadfastness in the face of aggression.”
On Wednesday morning, Israel’s Justice Ministry published a list of some 300 Palestinian prisoners and detainees it said it would potentially agree to free as part of the deal. The vast majority, 287, were males aged 18 or under who have been held by Israel for rioting or rock-throwing in the West Bank or East Jerusalem. Thirteen other prisoners are adult women, most convicted of attempted stabbing attacks.
According to Haaretz, the Israeli government authorized Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Minister Benny Gantz to decide which prisoners are released at every phase and when the cease-fire will end, as long as it does not extend to more than ten days.
Israel’s Almagor Terror Victims Association immediately announced that it would file a petition in the country’s High Court of Justice against the deal. The group warned that the agreement contained the same “landmines and surprises” as previous prisoner exchange deals.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog said on Wednesday that such reservations were “understandable, painful, and difficult,” but added that “given the circumstances I back and support the decision of the Prime Minister and the Government to move forward with the deal to release hostages.”
“This is a moral and ethical duty that correctly expresses the Jewish and Israeli value of securing the freedom of those held captive, with the hope that it will be the first step in returning all the hostages home,” he said in a statement.
Meanwhile, terrorist groups in Gaza and in southern Lebanon continued to fire rockets and projectiles into southern and northern Israel overnight Tuesday and Wednesday morning, as the IDF responded with airstrikes and its ongoing ground operation in the Strip.
A statement from the Israeli military on Wednesday said that its troops were still working to disable “terrorist infrastructure, kill terrorists and locate weapons” in the areas of Jabalya and Bein Hanoun. Numerous weapons, including AK-47 rifles, axes, and ammunition had been located inside a civilian residence, the army said, and several tunnel shafts destroyed.
At Al-Shifa Hospital, the Strip’s main medical center in Gaza City, the army said on Tuesday it had gone deeper into the tunnel shaft discovered a few days ago on the premises, breaching a blast door it believes will lead to one of Hamas’ control and command centers below the hospital.
The army also announced that additional soldiers were killed in the fighting on Tuesday, bringing the death toll to 69 since it began its ground incursion into the Palestinian enclave.
In northern Israel on Tuesday, the army responded to a barrage of rockets and missiles fired from within Lebanese territory by striking Hezbollah and Hamas targets across the border. Local media in Lebanon reported that in one strike, the deputy commander of the Lebanese branch of Hamas’s al-Qassam Brigades, Khalil al-Kharaz, was killed. In another Israeli airstrike, local media said, two journalists, Farah Omar and Rabih Maamari, a reporter and cameraman, for the Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen TV channel, were killed.