Israel and Hamas agree truce, release of 50 hostages
Israel and Hamas announced a deal on Wednesday allowing at least 50 hostages and scores of Palestinian prisoners to be freed while offering besieged Gaza residents a four-day truce after weeks of all-out war.
In the first major diplomatic breakthrough in the bloodiest ever Gaza war, Palestinian militants are set to release 50 women and children kidnapped during their deadly October 7 raids into southern Israel.
“We are very happy that a partial release is pending,” the Hostages and Missing Families Forum group said in a statement. “As of now, we don’t know exactly who will be released when.”
After weeks of Qatar-brokered negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet approved the truce accord at the end of an almost all-night meeting, with the premier telling ministers this was a “difficult decision but it’s a right decision”.
The cabinet’s sign-off was one of the last stumbling blocks after what one US official described as five “extremely excruciating” weeks of talks.
Hamas welcomed the “humanitarian truce” and said it would see 150 Palestinians released from Israeli jails.
“The resistance is committed to the truce as long as the occupation honours it,” a Hamas official told AFP.
The war started after Hamas gunmen on October 7 launched the worst attack in Israel’s history that left around 1,200 people dead, most of them civilians, according to the Israeli government.
Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups also took an estimated 240 Israelis and foreigners hostage, among them elderly people and young children.
Israel declared war on Hamas, vowing to bring the hostages home and to destroy the militant group.
It launched a major bombing campaign and ground offensive in Gaza, which, according to the Hamas government, has killed 14,100 people, thousands of them children.
Israel said that to facilitate the hostage release it would initiate a four-day “pause” in its air, land and sea assault of Gaza, while it stressed that the agreement did not spell the end of the war.
For every 10 additional hostages released, there would be an extra day’s “pause”, the Israeli government said.
– ‘Brave souls’ –
Sources from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group had earlier told AFP the truce would include a ceasefire on the ground and a pause in Israeli air operations over southern Gaza.
The negotiations have involved the US Central Intelligence Agency, Israel’s overseas spy agency Mossad, Egyptian intelligence, and leaders in Doha, Cairo, Washington, Gaza and Israel.
A senior US official said three Americans, including three-year-old Abigail Mor Idan, were among the 50 earmarked for staggered release from Thursday.
US President Joe Biden said he was “extraordinarily gratified that some of these brave souls… will be reunited with their families once this deal is fully implemented”.
Qatar’s foreign ministry confirmed the deal, saying that “a number of Palestinian women and children detained in Israeli prisons” would be released in exchange for the hostages.
“The starting time of the pause will be announced within the next 24 hours and last for four days, subject to extension,” the ministry said.
Families grappled with a lack of clarity over who would be released and when.
“We don’t know who will get out because Hamas will release the names every evening of those who will get out the next day,” said Gilad Korngold, whose son and daughter-in-law are being held in Gaza along with their two children and other relatives.
Israel released the names of 300 Palestinian prisoners being considered for release, without specifying who might be freed in the first phase.
“We don’t know who will be freed first, and that’s a problem for us in responding to the families,” said Amani Sarahneh, spokesperson for the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club advocacy group.
Among the Palestinians slated for release is Shrouq Dwayyat, convicted of attempted murder in a 2015 knife attack.
Her mother Sameera Dwayyat told AFP she had “mixed feelings” about the news.
“I had hoped that she would come out in a deal,” she said, though she added that her relief was tempered by “great pain in my heart” over the dead children in Gaza.
The deal was welcomed by countries including Britain, China, France, Germany, Jordan and Egypt, where the office of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi touted the “success” of mediation by Cairo, Doha and Washington.
The Palestinian Authority also hailed the agreement while reiterating its call for “a comprehensive cessation of the Israeli aggression” and more aid deliveries, senior official Hussein al-Sheikh wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
– Misgivings –
Ahead of the Israeli cabinet vote, Netanyahu had faced criticism from within his right-wing coalition, some of whom thought the deal gave too much to the Palestinian militants.
Hardline Minister for National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir signalled he would vote against the agreement, saying it should include the release of Israeli soldiers also taken by Hamas.
But with dozens of families in Israel who are desperate to have their loved ones returned home, and the Israeli public gripped by the hostages’ fate, the government ultimately set aside any misgivings.
Israel’s hawkish Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said before the crunch meeting that he had won assurances that the deal would not spell the end of the war.
“Immediately after we have exhausted this phase”, security operations would “continue in full force”, he said.
The government underscored that Israel “will continue 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”.
– ‘Unbearable situation’ –
Earlier, Gaza resident Hamza Abdel Razeq said he would welcome any ceasefire agreement, hoping it would bring some respite.
“The people are really suffering,” he told AFP. “I believe it will pave the way for longer truces or even a total ceasefire.”
A US official said there was also hope that the deal would lead to a “full pause” in deadly exchanges of fire along the Israel-Lebanon border with Hezbollah, which like Hamas is backed by Iran.
Large parts of Gaza have been flattened by thousands of air strikes, and the territory faces shortages of food, water and fuel.
Israel appeared to continue its offensive in northern Gaza Wednesday, with witnesses reporting dawn strikes on Kamal Adwan hospital and nearby homes. A casualty toll was not immediately available.
Medical workers treated bloodied, dust-covered survivors as other residents fled through debris-strewn streets to safety.
Israel says Hamas uses medical facilities to hide fighters and as bases for operations, making them legitimate military objectives while insisting it does everything possible to limit harm to civilians.