Release of Hostages, Prisoners Begins Under Israel-Hamas Truce
As a truce took effect between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, President Joe Biden on Friday took partial credit for the negotiated release of hostages by Hamas and the freeing of prisoners by Israel, saying it was the “result of extensive U.S. diplomacy.”
The president said he and his team have been working for weeks for a pause in the fighting, pressing for humanitarian aid to be allowed into Gaza and for the release of those abducted by Hamas in Israel on October 7.
The U.S. president thanked Qatar, Egypt and Israel for the deal that led to the release of some of those taken captive by Hamas.
“It’s only a start but, so far, it’s gone well,” Biden said.Biden’s remarks, from Nantucket, Massachusetts, came hours after the planned four-day cease-fire began after seven weeks of war.
For Israelis, the Qatar-brokered halt in hostilities means some of the 240 hostages Israel says were abducted by Hamas in an unprecedented attack in Israel on October 7 are now returning home.
Twenty-four hostages, including 13 Israeli women and children, ranging in age from 2 to 85, were released Friday evening. Additionally, Hamas released 10 Thai nationals and a Filipino whom it also had taken hostage, according to the Qatari government.
Meanwhile, the Israeli government freed 39 Palestinian women and male juveniles who had been imprisoned or detained.
"Teams from the International Committee of the Red Cross on Friday began carrying out a multiday operation to facilitate the release and transfer of hostages held in Gaza and of Palestinian detainees to the West Bank. The operation will include the delivery of additional, much-needed humanitarian assistance into Gaza," the ICRC said in a statement about the four-day truce brokered by Qatar.Under the cease-fire deal, Israel is pausing its attacks on Gaza for four days.
Hamas confirmed on its Telegram channel that attacks from its forces would also pause.
Israel said the four-day stop in fighting would be extended an extra day for every 10 additional hostages freed by Hamas. A Qatari spokesperson said Doha hoped to broker another agreement to release more hostages from Gaza by the truce's fourth day.
"Chances are real” for an extension of the temporary halt to the war, Biden said in his Friday remarks. He added that two American women and a 4-year-old American child remained among those missing.
Care for released hostages
Israeli public health official Dr. Hagai Levine said some of the elderly hostages had chronic conditions like diabetes. And the children have not seen daylight in almost seven weeks, he said.
"We do not know, we need to be prepared, to hope for the best and prepare for the worst," Levine said. "So, that's why in Israel we need to be prepared to meet their needs, a holistic approach. Some of them, the hostages, were severely wounded, had their limbs amputated, their hand or their leg, gunshot wounds. We don't know if and how they were treated, if they got infected."
A second group of Israeli hostages was expected to be released Saturday.
Relief for Gaza residents
For Palestinians, the cease-fire means a respite from almost seven weeks of Israeli airstrikes that have killed more than 14,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-affiliated health ministry.
Jason Lee, the West Bank director for Save the Children, said children in Gaza have been inordinately affected.
"We now have a situation where one child is killed every 10 minutes," Lee said. "The numbers of civilians that have been injured are increasing as well. Over 30,000 civilians are injured, and again, indicating the asymmetry of this conflict, almost 70 percent — that's seven out of 10 — is a woman or a child."
Israel said it would allow large quantities of humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza.
"Four tankers of fuel and four tankers of cooking gas were transferred from Egypt to U.N. humanitarian aid organizations in the southern Gaza Strip via the Rafah Crossing," according to the Israel Defense Forces. About 200 trucks crossed into Gaza with humanitarian aid beginning Friday morning, according to Biden. Before the war broke out between Israel and Hamas, about 500 trucks entered the Palestinian territory daily.
Both sides vow to fight on
Israel dropped leaflets warning residents of northern Gaza who had fled the fighting not to return to their homes, as fighting is expected to resume once the cease-fire expires.
The spokesperson for Hamas' armed wing called Thursday for the escalation of hostilities with Israel.
"We call for escalation of the confrontation with the occupation throughout the West Bank and all resistance fronts," Abu Ubaida, the spokesperson for the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, said in a speech aired by Al Jazeera TV.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to ensure Hamas is unable to attack Israel in the future.
"I want to be clear. The war is continuing. The war is continuing. We will continue it until we achieve all our goals," Netanyahu said at a news conference Wednesday.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who hosted the Spanish and Belgian prime ministers on Friday, said in a televised address that international leaders, including Biden, have told him that Palestinians will not be forced out of Gaza and into Egypt. He said that living conditions in Gaza were impossible, and that this would push people to leave the area. The Egyptian leader said he spoke with Biden, who assured him that the U.S. would not permit the forced migration of Palestinians out of Gaza.
Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told journalists during a visit to Egypt's Rafah border crossing Friday that the European Union was hoping to get more aid into Gaza than has been entering the strip.
Sanchez called for Hamas to release all remaining hostages and urged Israel to show more restraint.
"I also reiterate Israel's right to defend itself, but it must do so within the parameters and limitations imposed by international humanitarian law, and this is not the case," he said. "The indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians, including thousands of boys and girls, is completely unacceptable. Violence will only lead to more violence."
Sanchez went on to propose an international peace conference to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict, and to stress the need to implement a "two-state solution" between Israel and Palestinians.Visiting Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo stated the goal of the European Union's mediation between Israel and the Palestinians was to produce a "permanent cease-fire," and to allow the entry of the massive backup of humanitarian aid supplies on the Egyptian side of the border. He also criticized Israel's military operation in Gaza, while condemning the Palestinian Hamas group, which runs Gaza.
"On the other side of this border, horrific fighting has taken place. Too many civilians have been killed, and as always, the first victims are women and children. Families have been torn apart, communities have been destroyed," De Croo said. "Israel has a right to defend its citizens. The whole of Hamas is barbaric, and Hamas needs to do everything to release all the innocent hostages."
Arab and Islamic leaders called for an unconditional cease-fire and efforts by the international community to implement a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians during a joint Arab-Islamic summit in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on November 11.
Biden on Friday reiterated his stance to pursue a two-state solution so Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side.
“It’s now more important than ever,” he said.
With my VOA colleagues Linda Gradstein in Jerusalem and Edward Yeranian in Cairo.