Israel Palestine Conflict

Thirteen hostages held by Hamas in Gaza back in Israel

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The Israeli army said Sunday that 13 released hostages were back on Israeli territory, and another four were on their way to Egypt.

Twelve were headed to a military base, accompanied by Israeli special forces, it said in a statement, and one had been flown directly to hospital. Four additional released hostages were on their way to the Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, it added.

The hostages released include nine children, four women and a Russian-Israeli, according to accounts given to AFP by their relatives, Israeli media and the Hostage Families Forum.

Hamas confirmed on Sunday it had handed over 13 Israeli hostages, three Thai nationals and a person with Russian citizenship who had been held in the Gaza Strip to the Red Cross on the third day of a truce between Israel and the militant group.

The releases bring to 63 the total number of freed hostages from around 240 taken to Gaza after the unprecedented October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel.

The releases came following a Friday agreement between Israel and Hamas, which is supposed to last for four days and allow for 50 Israelis and 150 Palestinians to be freed.

The release of some of the hostages captured when Hamas fighters rampaged through southern Israel on Oct. 7 is expected to be mirrored by the Israelis freeing another group of 39 Palestinian prisoners as on previous days in the truce.

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The four-day truce is the first halt in fighting in the seven weeks since Hamas killed 1,200 people and took about 240 hostages back into Gaza.

In response to that attack, Israel has vowed to destroy the Hamas militants who run Gaza, bombarding the enclave and mounting a ground offensive in the north. Some 14,800 Palestinians have been killed, Gaza health authorities say, and hundreds of thousands displaced.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday met security forces inside the Gaza Strip and indicated that the campaign was far from over.

“Nothing will stop us, and we are convinced that we have the strength, the power, the will and the determination to achieve all the goals of the war, and that is what we will do,” he said.

Netanyahu is expected to speak to US President Joe Biden later on Sunday.

Farmer killed

The killing of a Palestinian farmer in the central Gaza Strip had earlier added to concerns over the fragility of the truce.

The farmer was killed when targeted by Israeli forces east of Gaza’s long-established Maghazi refugee camp, the Palestinian Red Crescent said.

On a more positive note, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said there was “reason to believe” a US hostage would be released from captivity in Gaza on Sunday. Sullivan declined to give the hostage’s identity.

Thirteen Israelis and four Thai nationals arrived in Israel early on Sunday after a second release of hostages held by Hamas following an initial delay caused by a dispute about aid delivery into Gaza.

Egypt and Qatar acted as mediators on Saturday to maintain the truce.

The armed wing of Hamas also said on Sunday that four of its military commanders in the Gaza Strip had been killed, including the commander of the North Gaza brigade, Ahmad Al Ghandour. It did not say when they had been killed.

Qatar, Egypt and the United States are pressing for the truce to be extended beyond Monday but it is not clear whether that will happen.

Israel had said the ceasefire could be extended if Hamas continued to release at least 10 hostages a day. A Palestinian source had said up to 100 hostages could go free.

West Bank violence

Six of the group of 13 Israelis released on Saturday were women and seven were teenagers or children. The youngest was three-year-old Yahel Shoham, freed with her mother and brother, although her father remains a hostage.

Israel freed 39 Palestinians - six women and 33 teenagers - from two prisons, the Palestinian news agency WAFA said.

Some of the Palestinians arrived at Al-Bireh Municipality Square in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where thousands of citizens awaited them, a Reuters journalist said.

Violence flared in the West Bank where Israeli forces killed seven Palestinians, including two minors and at least one gunman, late on Saturday and early Sunday, medics and local sources said.

Even before the Oct. 7 attacks from Gaza, the West Bank had been in a state of unrest, with a rise in Israeli army raids, Palestinian attacks, and violence by Israeli settlers in the past 18 months. More than 200 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since Oct. 7, some in Israeli air strikes.

Saturday’s swap follows the previous day’s initial release of 13 Israeli hostages, including children and the elderly, by Hamas in return for the release of 39 Palestinian women and teenagers from Israeli prisons.

The four Thais freed on Saturday “want a shower and to contact their relatives”, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said on social media platform X. All were safe and showed few ill-effects, he said.

“I’m so happy, I’m so glad, I can’t describe my feeling at all,” Thongkoon Onkaew told Reuters by telephone after news of the release of her son Natthaporn, 26, the family’s sole breadwinner.

Days of calm

The deal risked being derailed when Hamas’ armed wing said on Saturday it was delaying releases until Israel met all truce conditions, including committing to let aid trucks into northern Gaza.

Saving the deal took a day of diplomacy mediated by Qatar and Egypt, which President Biden also joined.

Al-Qassam Brigades also said Israel had failed to respect terms for the release of Palestinian prisoners that factored in their time in detention.

COGAT, the Israeli agency for civilian coordination with the Palestinians, accused Hamas itself of delaying trucks trying to deliver humanitarian aid to northern Gaza at a checkpoint.

“To Hamas, residents of Gaza are their last priority,” it said on Sunday.

Saturday also brought hours of waiting for the families of hostages, some of whose joy was tempered by the continued captivity of others.

“My heart is split because my son, Itay, is still in Hamas’ captivity in Gaza,” Mirit Regev, the mother of Maya Regev, who was released late on Saturday, said in a statement from the Hostage and Missing Families Forum.

The truce allowed some respite for Gazans such as Ibrahim Kaninch, who sat by a small bonfire outside his partially destroyed house, feeding the flames with bits of cardboard as he heated up water for tea.

“We’re living days of calm, where we are stealing moments to make tea,” he said, his face lit by the glow of the fire in Khan Younis in southern Gaza.

With agencies

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