Scores of Palestinians and Israelis freed from captivity on first day of Gaza truce
Updated November 24, 2023 at 4:23 PM ET
TEL AVIV, Israel — After nearly seven weeks in captivity, 24 hostages seized by Hamas in its deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel are now free after crossing into Egypt. In exchange, Israel released 39 Palestinians hours later at the city of Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu published a list of 13 Israelis, 10 Thais and one Filipino released by Hamas Friday evening. By 8 p.m. local time (1 p.m. ET), the Palestinians held in Israeli jails were also free.
"The Israeli government embraces our citizens that returned home," Netanyahu's office said. "The Israeli government is committed to the return of all abductees and missing persons," adding that the Israelis had undergone an initial medical exam and that their families were informed.
Among the freed captives, Israel lists eight members in three separate families, including four young children, as well as several other individuals. Five of the captives are in their 70s and the oldest is 85. Many of the freed hostages came from a single kibbutz, Nir Oz.
In Ramallah, where people gathered to celebrate the release of the Palestinians, the festive scene turned into one of protest against Israel's occupation and the war in Gaza. Many of the protesters praised Hamas, describing the Oct. 7 terror attack as an act of resistance. Earlier in the day, Israeli soldiers fired tear gas at about 150 Palestinian protesters in the West Bank.
In a statement from Hamas, referring to the freed prisoners, the militant group praised "the sons of our struggling Palestinian people." It said its "great action on the battlefield" had forced Israel into the exchange deal.
Hamas released a list of the prisoners it expected to be freed, all of whom come from the West Bank or East Jerusalem.
Qatar helped broker the four-day cease-fire deal that included the release of hostages in exchange for Palestinians prisoners. Egypt and the United States were also part of the negotiations.
Under the agreement, Hamas is anticipated to release a total of 50 Israelis over the four-day period in exchange for 150 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, a spokesman for the Gulf state's foreign ministry said that in addition to the Israelis, "10 Thai citizens and a Filipino citizen," were among those released Friday and were not a part of the truce agreement. Thousands of Thais work as farm laborers in Israel. Officials believe 13 others are still being held by Hamas.
How the exchange unfolded
NPR's producer Anas Baba was at the Rafah crossing in Gaza where he saw four Red Cross vehicles, at least one of which was carrying a handful of women who waved at people watching them from the sides of the road.
The temporary truce went into effect at 7 a.m. local time (midnight ET) on Friday. It comes weeks after the Hamas attack that killed more than 1,200 Israelis and in which roughly 240 hostages were taken, according to Israel. Israel's military has responded with airstrikes and a ground campaign in Gaza that has killed more than 12,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza's health ministry.
Subsequent hostages-for-prisoners swaps are set to occur in batches in the coming days of the truce, which Israel says could be extended up to 10 days.
Earlier, the Israeli military released images of a helicopter with two rows of noise-canceling headphones – ready to take the freed Israeli hostages to a military reception center. Officials said they would then be taken to hospitals to be reunited with their families. Social workers will be on hand to break the news that some of their friends and relatives were killed in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.
President Biden, speaking in Nantucket, Mass., told reporters that the hostage release is "only a start, but so far it's gone well."
No Americans were included in the initial 13 hostages released Friday morning, including two women and a 4-year-old girl who could be part of the deal. Biden said the work continues to free them and the other hostages that remain.
"We'll not stop until we get these hostages brought home and an answer to their whereabouts," Biden said.
In response to a question about timing for the Americans' release, he said, "It's my hope and expectation that it will be soon."
Biden said there is a rush to bring food, medicine, water and fuel to Gaza. Biden reiterated his commitment to pursuing a two-state solution for long-term stability in the region and thanked the leaders of Qatar and Egypt for their partnership in securing the deal.
Humanitarian aid begins to trickle into Gaza
Large areas of Gaza have been devastated by Israeli airstrikes and tanks since the conflict began, leaving much of the territory's 2.3 million people without electricity, food and clean water. According to UNRWA, the U.N. relief agency overseeing Palestinians, more than a million Gazans have been internally displaced as a result of the conflict.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said 200 trucks were dispatched to Gaza and that 137 had been unloaded on Friday, "making it the biggest humanitarian convoy received since October 7."
The U.N. office said that 129,000 liters (about 34,000 gallons) of fuel and four trucks of gas also crossed into Gaza and that 21 "critical patients" were evacuated in a large-scale medical operation from the north of Gaza.
"Hundreds of thousands of people were assisted with food, water, medical supplies and other essential humanitarian items," it said.
In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, UNRWA said: "No matter how much they provide — it is difficult to meet demands of the whole" Gaza Strip, adding that "over-crowding and unsanitary conditions" were leading to the spread of disease.
Early reports of possible cease-fire violations
Earlier Friday, in the first hours of the cease-fire, crowds of Palestinians were seen pouring into the streets in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis. Some Palestinians in southern Gaza tried to return to their homes for the first time since the start of the conflict.
As the pause began, Hamas and Israel blamed each other for violations. Israel's military says Hamas launched rockets into Israel 15 minutes after the start of the pause, and that Israeli forces didn't retaliate. The Hamas-controlled Gaza health ministry said that two people were killed and 30 wounded when Israeli soldiers opened fire on them in the early hours of the truce. An Israeli military official told NPR they were checking on the reports, and that any shooting would be a violation of the cease-fire agreement.
Israeli security forces say they've arrested more than 1,950 "wanted persons" since the start of the conflict. It says about 1,100 of the detainees are "associated with the terrorist organization Hamas."
In southern Gaza, Mohammed El Azzazi, a pharmacist from Rafah, expressed skepticism of the cease-fire. "There are no results from this pause, a pause where people can't return to their homes and injuries among people trying to go home," he told NPR.
Meanwhile, at the Qalandiya refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Raed Hhadeh, who teaches physics at a school in Ramallah, said he had mixed feelings about the cease-fire. "I feel good for the people to have rest from the bombardment, but this is not the solution," he told NPR. "It's a massacre. They are slaughtering children and this has to be stopped."
He said that Gazans returning to their homes in the east "won't find anything left."
NPR's Scott Neuman and Daniel Estrin reported from Tel Aviv and Brian Mann contributed from Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
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