26 Nov 2023

Gaza hostage release back on after aid row settled

10:39 am on 26 November 2023

By Bassam Masoud and Maayan Lubell for Reuters

Israeli security forces stand next to an ambulance at a medical centre in Tel Aviv as medical staff prepare for the arrival of Israeli hostages to be released by Hamas from the Gaza Strip on the second day of a four-day truce.

Israeli security forces stand next to an ambulance at a medical centre in Tel Aviv as medical staff prepare for the arrival of Israeli hostages to be released by Hamas from the Gaza Strip on the second day of a four-day truce. Photo: AFP/ Jack Guez

A group of hostages have been released today in Gaza, with the release deal back on after a row over aid supplies to the besieged enclave was resolved following mediation by Qatar and Egypt.

A Qatari source said [mid-morning New Zealand time] that today's release of hostages in Gaza had begun, and they had been handed over to the International Red Cross within the Gaza Strip, and were now travelling to the border.

A Palestinian official familiar with the diplomacy said on Saturday night that Hamas would continue with the four-day truce agreed with Israel, the first break in fighting in seven weeks of war.

"After a delay, obstacles to release of prisoners were overcome through Qatari-Egyptian contacts with both sides, and 39 Palestinian civilians will be released tonight, while 13 Israeli hostages will leave Gaza in addition to 7 foreigners," Qatar's foreign ministry spokesman Majed Al Ansari said on social media.

Eight children and five women would be released by Hamas as well as the seven foreigners, he said earlier.

The armed wing of Hamas had earlier said it was delaying Saturday's scheduled second round of hostage releases until Israel met all truce conditions, including committing to let aid trucks into northern Gaza.

Hamas spokesperson Osama Hamdan said only 65 of 340 aid trucks that had entered Gaza since Friday had reached northern Gaza, which was "less than half of what Israel agreed on."

Al-Qassam Brigades also said Israel had failed to respect the terms of the Palestinian prisoner releases. Qadura Fares, the Palestinian commissioner for prisoners, said Israel had not released detainees by seniority, as was expected.

Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, a member of Israel's security cabinet, told Channel 13 News that Israel was "abiding by the deal" with Hamas that Qatar had mediated.

Israel has said 50 trucks with food, water, shelter equipment and medical supplies had deployed to northern Gaza under UN supervision, the first significant aid delivery there since the start of the war.

The row over the truce dented hopes of a smooth second day of hostage and prisoner releases after 13 Israeli women and children were freed by Hamas on Friday. Some 39 Palestinian women and teenagers were released from Israeli jails.

Israeli army spokesperson Olivier Rafowicz told French television Israel was strictly honouring the terms of the truce, and said the military had carried out no attacks or offensive operations in Gaza on Saturday.

Truce extended?

The Israeli army spokesman said earlier Israel had been expecting another 13 hostages to be set free on Saturday, with 39 Palestinian prisoners also to be released - barring last-minute changes.

International Red Cross vehicles reportedly carrying hostages released by Hamas on 24 November, cross the Rafah border point in the Gaza Strip on the way to Egypt, before being flown to Israel.

Red Cross vehicles during yesterday's release of hostages by Hamas, crossing the Rafah border point in the Gaza Strip on the way to Egypt, before they were flown to Israel. Photo: AFP/ Mohammed Abed

A total of 50 hostages are to be exchanged for 150 Palestinian prisoners over four days under the truce, the first halt in fighting since Hamas fighters rampaged through southern Israel on 7 October, killing 1200 people and taking about 240 hostages.

In response to that attack, Israel has vowed to destroy the Hamas militants who run Gaza, raining bombs and shells on the enclave and launching a ground offensive in the north. To date, some 14,800 people, roughly 40 percent of them children, have been killed, Palestinian health authorities said on Saturday.

Before the delay to the latest hostage and prisoner exchange, Egypt, which controls the Rafah border crossing through which aid supplies have resumed into southern Gaza, said it had received "positive signals" from all parties over a possible truce extension.

Diaa Rashwan, the head of Egypt's State Information Service (SIS), said in a statement that Cairo was holding extensive talks with all parties to reach an agreement which would mean "the release of more detainees in Gaza and Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails."

Israel has said the ceasefire could be extended if Hamas continues to release hostages at a rate of at least 10 per day. A Palestinian source has said up to 100 hostages could go free.

Dancing for joy

The short-lived row over the truce accord's implementation contrasted with scenes of joy earlier in the day as hostages were reunited with their families.

After almost 50 days in captivity in Gaza, nine-year-old Ohad Munder ran down a hospital corridor in Israel into his father's arms, footage released by the hospital showed.

He and three other children released at the same time were in relatively good condition, Gilat Livni, the centre's Director of Paediatrics told reporters.

"They shared experiences, we were up with them until late at night and it was interesting, upsetting and moving," said Livni.

"I dreamt we came home," said another hostage, four-year-old Raz Asher, as she sat in her father's arms on a hospital bed after she and her mother and younger sister were freed. "Now the dream came true," her father, Yoni, replied.

In Thailand, where authorities welcomed the release of 10 of its nationals under a separate deal mediated by Egypt and Qatar, a mother danced for joy when she saw her daughter Natthawaree Mulkan was among the hostages released by Hamas.

"I was elated ... I came out and danced," 56-year-old Bunyarin Srijan said, pointing to her patio.

For Palestinians, however, joy at the release of prisoners from Israeli jails had a bitter tinge to it. Israeli police were seen raiding the home of Sawsan Bkeer on Friday shortly before her daughter Marah, 24, was released. Israeli police declined to comment.

"There is no real joy, even this little joy we feel as we wait," said Sawsan Bkeer. "We are still afraid to feel happy," she said.

- This story was first published by Reuters.

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