Pause in war gives hope to families of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners

Hamas and Israel agreed to a four-day pause in fighting and to release at least 50 Israeli hostages held in Gaza and 150 Palestinians held by Israel, beginning as early as Thursday.

A woman looks at photographs of hostages, mostly Israeli civilians, who were abducted during the Oct. 7, unprecedented Hamas attack on Israel, in Ramat Gan, Israel, on Wednesday.
A woman looks at photographs of hostages, mostly Israeli civilians, who were abducted during the Oct. 7, unprecedented Hamas attack on Israel, in Ramat Gan, Israel, on Wednesday. Oded Balilty | AP
Updated November 22, 2023 at 10:02 AM ET

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel and Hamas on Wednesday announced details of a four-day cease-fire, saying it calls for freeing at least 50 Israeli hostages seized during last month’s Hamas attack on Israel in exchange for at least 150 Palestinian women and minors held in Israeli jails.

In Washington, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken welcomed the agreement for the release of hostages, “including American citizens.” There are 10 dual U.S.-Israeli citizens unaccounted for, a senior Biden administration official said, three of whom could be released as part of the deal, including a 3-year-old whose parents were killed on Oct. 7.

The deal, brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the U.S., is set to go into effect when the first Israeli hostages are released by Hamas. A leader of the militant group suggested that could come as soon as Thursday morning.

It comes more than six weeks into an intense war in Gaza triggered by Hamas’ massive Oct. 7 attack on Israel, in which Israel says militants killed some 1,200 Israelis and seized around 240 hostages. More than 12,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s bombardments on Gaza, according to the latest data from the Gaza health ministry. But this figure hasn’t been updated for several days following the collapse in communications and hospital closures in the north of Gaza.

The deal outlines an initial four-day pause in the fighting, with at least 10 Israelis released each day of the cease-fire. The Palestinians prisoners would be freed over the same period.

Earlier, the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement that it was ready to assist in any prisoner-for-hostages exchange. “Our role is to facilitate the implementation, once the parties agree,” the aid organization said.

Despite the temporary truce, Israel says it will continue the war in Gaza after the exchange deal is complete. But it says it is willing to extend the temporary cease-fire up to five more days, and free an additional 150 Palestinian prisoners and detainees, if Hamas frees 50 additional Israeli hostages — which could bring the total number of those ultimately freed under the deal to 100 Israelis and 300 Palestinians.

Early Wednesday, Israel published the names of Palestinian prisoners slated for release in accordance with Israeli law, which allows the Israeli public to submit objections to Israel’s Supreme Court. An Israeli group representing victims of Palestinian attacks petitioned the court to block the deal, Israel’s Channel 13 reported. The court, however, is not expected to intervene.

On the list are 33 women and the remainder are teenage boys aged 14-18 who were arrested by Israeli forces in recent years. Some are Palestinians being held without charge, while others are awaiting trial on charges ranging from incitement and stone-throwing to attempted murder.

“Holding people as hostages is itself illegal, a war crime, and Hamas should release all the hostages unconditionally. But it is appropriate that Israel release prisoners and detainees to advance this goal,” said Jessica Montell, executive director of the Israeli human rights group HaMoked, which provides legal aid to Palestinians.

Families await news of their loved ones

Although the names of the Israelis that Hamas intends to free have not been made public, news of the deal sparked hope among families on both sides of conflict who have waited anxiously for the release of their loved ones.

Hen Avigdori, an Israeli comedy writer whose wife Sharon and 12-year-old daughter Noam are being held in Gaza, said the Israeli army promised to notify him ahead of time if they are slated to be released.

“I am calm, because I know that there is hope. But I’m also calm because I know the hope can be shattered at any moment,” Avigdori told NPR.

A Palestinian resident of Jerusalem, Yousef Afghani, was surprised to see his 40-year-old daughter Aisha Afghani on Israel’s list of prisoners it is prepared to release. She has served seven years of her 15-year sentence, convicted for an attempted 2016 stabbing in which no one was wounded. Her father told NPR she was carrying a knife but denied she attempted a stabbing.

“My feelings are the feelings of any father. Celebration and happiness and joy,” Afghani told NPR. But he also condemned the kidnapping of Israelis to Gaza, which resulted in the deal to free his daughter. “We are against any kind of attack against civilians.”

Meanwhile, in Rome, Pope Francis met separately with Israeli relatives of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, and families of Palestinians held in Israel. In unscripted remarks afterward, Francis said he felt “both sides are suffering,” but that the conflict had “gone beyond war. This is not war; it’s terrorism.”

In addition to Israelis and U.S. citizens, foreigners from several other countries are among the people believed to be held by Hamas. Among them are more than 20 Thai farm laborers seized near the Gaza border in the Oct. 7 attack. Fox says she understands that the Thais are not part of the exchange deal.

Deal will also allow fuel into Gaza

The agreement, which appears to have been in the works for weeks, was approved by Israel in a marathon series of cabinet meetings that stretched into the early hours Wednesday. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “hard decision but right decision.”

Israel’s Channel 12 news says the deal allows “significant” humanitarian aid into Gaza, including desperately needed fuel to run generators — the only source of electricity throughout much of the besieged territory. Since Israel launched airstrikes and a subsequent ground invasion of Gaza after last month’s Hamas attack, the territory’s 2.2 million people have experienced dire shortages of food, water and medical supplies. Hamas said “hundreds” of trucks carrying aid and fuel would be allowed to enter Gaza.

UNRWA, the United Nations relief agency that oversees Gaza and the West Bank, distributes flour to Palestinian refugees on Wednesady in Khan Yunis, Gaza.
UNRWA, the United Nations relief agency that oversees Gaza and the West Bank, distributes flour to Palestinian refugees on Wednesday in Khan Yunis, Gaza. Ahmad Hasaballah | Getty Images

In a statement late Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden said he and first lady Jill Biden were “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.”

Biden thanked Qatar’s Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani and Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi for help in brokering the deal.

Speaking in Qatar, Al Thani said he hopes the humanitarian truce could provide a framework to “stop the war machine and bloodshed.” El-Sisi said Egypt would continue “efforts made to reach final and sustainable solutions that achieve justice, impose peace, and guarantee the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.”

Both sides stress the war is not over

Israel has made clear that the deal doesn’t mean the fighting is over. In a statement, the Israeli government said it “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.”

Hamas, in its own statement, welcomed the agreement that it said was reached after “difficult and complex negotiations for many days.” But the militant group that has controlled Gaza since 2007 also cautioned “our hands will remain on the trigger, and our winning battalions will remain in control to defend our people and defeat occupation and aggression.”

NPR’s Scott Neuman and Daniel Estrin reported from Tel Aviv. NPR’s Ruth Sherlock contributed from Rome.

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