RAFAH, Gaza Strip: Hamas on Friday released 24 hostages it held captive in Gaza for weeks, and Israel freed 39 Palestinians from prison in the first stage of a swap under a four-day cease-fire that offered a small glimmer of relief to both sides.
Israel — wrenched by the abduction of nearly 240 people in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack that triggered the war — cheered as 13 Israeli women and children emerged free from Gaza. Most were in their 70s or 80s, and the youngest was a 2-year-old. Ten people from Thailand and one from the Philippines were also released.
In Gaza, the truce’s start Friday morning brought the first quiet for 2.3 million Palestinians reeling and desperate 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.
Increased supplies of food, water, medicine and fuel promised under the deal began to roll into Gaza, where U.N. officials had warned that Israel’s seal on the territory threatened to push it to starvation.
But relief has been tempered — among Israelis by the fact that not all hostages will be freed and among Palestinians by the briefness of the pause. The short truce leaves Gaza mired in a humanitarian crisis and under the threat that fighting could soon resume.
Israel says the cease-fire could be extended if more hostages are released, but it has vowed to resume its massive offensive once the truce ends. That has clouded hopes that the deal could eventually help wind down the conflict, which has fueled a surge of violence in the occupied West Bank and stirred fears of a wider conflagration across the Middle East.
Under the deal, Hamas is to release at least 50 hostages and Israel 150 Palestinian prisoners over the four days. Both sides were starting with women and children. Israel said the four-day truce could be extended an extra day for every additional ten hostages freed.
After nightfall Friday, a line of ambulances emerged from Gaza through the Rafah Crossing into Egypt carrying the freed hostages, as seen live on Egypt’s state-run Al-Qahera TV. The freed Israelis included nine women and four children nine and under.
The released hostages were taken to three Israeli hospitals for observation. The Schneider Children’s Medical Center said it treated eight Israelis — four children and four women — and all appeared to be in good physical condition. The center said they were also receiving psychological treatment, adding that “these are sensitive moments” for the families.
At a plaza dubbed “Hostages Square” in Tel Aviv, a crowd of Israelis celebrated the news.
Yael Adar spotted her mother, 85-year-old Yaffa Adar, in a T.V. newscast of the release and was cheered to see her walking. “That was a huge concern, what would happen to her health during these almost two months,” she told Israel’s Channel 12.
But Yael’s 38-year-old son, Tamir Adar, remained in captivity. Both were kidnapped on Oct. 7 from Kibbutz Nir Oz. “Everyone needs to come back. It’s happiness locked up in grief.”
The hostages included multiple generations. Nine-year-old Ohad Munder-Zichri and his mother, Keren Munder, and grandmother, Ruti Munder, were freed. The fourth-grader was abducted during a holiday visit to his grandparents at the kibbutz, where about 80 people — nearly a quarter of all residents of the small community — are believed to have been taken hostage.