Israeli hostages transferred to Red Cross as guns fall silent after 48 days of war

The pause triggers movement of thousands of Gazans who had sought refuge in schools and hospitals

By AFP, Reuters

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Members of the media and people gather at Rafah border waiting for the release of hostages abducted by Hamas. — Reuters
Members of the media and people gather at Rafah border waiting for the release of hostages abducted by Hamas. — Reuters

Published: Fri 24 Nov 2023, 6:50 PM

After 48 days of gunfire and bombardment that claimed thousands of lives, a four-day truce in the Israel-Hamas war began on Friday with hostages being released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. Israeli TV stations reported that hostages in Gaza had been transferred to Red Cross on way to border crossing with Egypt.

The pause triggered a mass movement of thousands of Gazans who had sought refuge in schools and hospitals from relentless Israeli bombardment begun after unprecedented attacks on October 7 by Hamas militants.

"I'm going home," Omar Jibrin, 16, told AFP after he emerged from a hospital in the south of the Gaza Strip where he and eight family members had sought refuge.

In Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza where many Palestinians fled, a cacophony of car horns and ambulance sirens has replaced the sound of war.

For Khaled Al Halabi, the truce is "a chance to breathe" after nearly seven weeks of war that began when Hamas broke through Gaza's militarised border to kill, according to Israeli officials, about 1,200 people and seize around 240 Israeli and foreign hostages.

Halabi had taken refuge in Rafah but is from Gaza City in the north, much of which has been reduced to rubble.

Israel's retaliatory air, artillery and naval strikes alongside a ground offensive have killed about 15,000 people, the Hamas government in Gaza said.

Mediator Qatar said the first group of 13 hostages released would be women and children.

Gazans have struggled to survive with shortages of water and other essentials. Trucks carrying more aid, including fuel, gas, and food, began moving into Gaza from the Rafah crossing with Egypt shortly after the truce began at 7am.

Jens Laerke, spokesman for the United Nations humanitarian agency, OCHA, expressed hope in Geneva that the pause "leads to a longer-term humanitarian ceasefire for the benefit of the people of Gaza, Israel and beyond".

He repeated the need for access across Gaza, especially in the north "where the damage and the humanitarian needs are the greatest".

The agreement came after weeks of talks involving Israel, Palestinian militant groups, Qatar, Egypt and the United States.

Over the four days, at least 50 hostages are expected to be freed, leaving an estimated 190 in the hands of Palestinian militants.

In exchange, 150 Palestinian prisoners are expected to be released.

According to the UN, 1.7 million of Gaza's 2.4 million people are estimated to have been displaced by the fighting.

Now, thousands of them are trying to get home.

In Khan Yunis, they loaded belongings onto carts, strapped them to car roofs, or slung bags over their shoulders, crowding streets to return to their homes from temporary shelters.

Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets warning people that the war is not over and it is "very dangerous" to return north, the focus of Israel's military campaign.

But Abd El-Salam Matar, in Deir El-Balah, central Gaza, said he wanted to go back to Gaza City.

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"I hope I can reach it," he said. "We don't know if our homes still stand, but we hope."

The truce was also a chance for some Palestinians to return to Gaza through the Rafah crossing.

In the morning, a few apparent gunshots could be heard and dark plumes of smoke rose periodically over northern Gaza, an AFPTV livecam showed, but the truce appeared to be holding in the afternoon.

Further north, on the Lebanon-Israel border, calm also returned after regular deadly exchanges of fire, primarily between the Israeli army and Hezbollah. The Lebanese movement, like Hamas, is backed by Iran.

Ziv Agmon, legal adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, told reporters the hostages will be received individually or in groups by the International Committee of the Red Cross, taken across the border and handed to the Israeli army.

From El-Arish, in the Sinai, they would be flown to Israel, an Egyptian security source said.

The Israeli soldiers are being carefully prepared to receive potentially deeply traumatised women and children.

After medical examinations, the former captives will be able to telephone family members before reunions later at Israeli medical facilities, Agmon added.

AFP has confirmed the identities of 210 of the roughly 240 hostages.

At least 35 of those seized were children, with 18 of them aged 10 or under at the time.

Hamas earlier released four women and Israeli forces rescued another. Two other captives, including a woman soldier, were found dead by Israeli troops in Gaza.

Netanyahu's office said it had received "a first list of names" of those due to be released and been in contact with the families.

Maayan Zin, whose eight- and 15-year-old daughters Ela and Dafna are among the hostages, posted on social media platform X that she had been informed their names were not included.

"This is incredibly difficult for me; I long for their return," she wrote.

Ahead of the release, relatives and supporters of the captives gathered at a plaza in Tel Aviv adorned with their photos, stuffed toys, and a long table set up as if for a banquet, each chair bearing the label "hostage."

Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails will also be freed on Friday, Qatari foreign ministry spokesperson Majed Al Ansari said.

The Palestinian Authority's prisoner commission published a list of named Palestinian inmates — 24 women and 15 children — who could be released in exchange for the initial hostages.

The agreement entailed a "complete ceasefire with no attacks from the air or the ground" and the skies clear of drones to "allow for the hostage release to happen in a safe environment", Ansari said.

Palestinian prisoners will be freed from three jails in Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, then taken to the Ofer military camp on buses, an Israeli official told AFP on condition of anonymity.


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