Hamas frees hostages, Palestinian detainees released by Israel as truce takes hold
Hamas on Friday freed a first batch of hostages seized during its surprise attack on Israel on October 7 under a deal that saw a temporary truce take hold in the besieged and indiscriminately bombed Gaza Strip.
Thirteen Israeli hostages captured during Palestinian militants' cross-border raids were back in Israeli territory where they would undergo medical checks before being reunited with their families, the Israeli army said.
They included four children and six elderly women, an official Israeli list showed.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to bring all the hostages home.
"This is one of the goals of the war, and we are committed to achieving all the goals of the war," he said.
A convoy of Red Cross vehicles was earlier seen crossing the border between Gaza and Egypt, with some of the passengers waving, after Hamas handed over the hostages to the humanitarian organisation.
Israel is set to free three times as many Palestinian prisoners - women and teenage boys - under a deal that followed weeks of talks involving Israel, Palestinian groups, Qatar, Egypt and the United States.
Key mediator Qatar confirmed Hamas had on Friday released a total of 24 hostages and that Israel had freed 39 women and children from its prisons.
"Those released include 13 Israeli citizens, some of whom are dual citizens, in addition to 10 Thai citizens and a Filipino citizen," its foreign ministry spokesperson Majed Al Ansari said.
Hamas released a two-minute video later Friday showing masked fighters wearing the green headband of its armed wing handing hostages over to Red Cross officials.
This appears to be the first Hamas video showing the moment the hostages were handed over to the ICRC. (It’s being shared on Palestinian and Israeli social media - and by Israeli family members of those in the video). pic.twitter.com/xRYmppcEdH— Bel Trew (@Beltrew) November 24, 2023
US President Joe Biden said Friday's release was just a "start" and that there were "real" chances to extend the temporary truce in Gaza.
Speaking to reporters in Massachusetts, where he was spending the Thanksgiving holiday, Biden urged a broader effort to emerge from the crisis with a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Pictures released by the Israeli army showed bright pink and blue headphones sitting on the seats of a helicopter ready for the released hostages to use, along with toys and teddy bears waiting at a reception centre where they were being taken.
Israel has killed around 15,000 people in the Gaza Strip, including over 6,000 children, flattening entire districts and targeting schools, hospitals, and residential buildings in its ferocious and indiscriminate war.
Hamas broke through Gaza's militarised border with Israel on October 7 and killed around 1,200 people, seizing an estimated 240 Israeli and foreign hostages.
During a four-day truce, at least 50 hostages are expected to be freed.
In exchange, 150 Palestinians prisoners are expected to be released.
Of the 39 prisoners released on Friday, 28 were freed in the occupied West Bank, an AFP correspondent reported, while the other 11 were brought to annexed east Jerusalem, according to the Palestinian Prisoners' Club.
Those released in the West Bank were greeted by large crowds and fire crackers that lit up the night sky. In east Jerusalem, Israeli police issued orders banning celebrations.
"The police are in our house and are stopping people coming to see us," said Fatina Salman, whose daughter Malak, now 23, was among those released.
The pause in fighting in Gaza triggered a mass movement of thousands of people who had sought refuge in schools and hospitals from relentless Israeli bombardment begun after attacks 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.
Gazans have struggled to survive with shortages of water and other essentials.
Trucks carrying aid, including fuel, food and medicine, began moving into Gaza through the Rafah crossing from Egypt shortly after the truce began at 7:00 am (0500 GMT). Israel had previously imposed a "total siege" on the territory, denying essential food, fuel and water to its residents.
A total of 200 aid trucks passed through on Friday -- the biggest humanitarian convoy to enter the besieged territory since the war started - according to the Israeli defence ministry body that handles Palestinian civil affairs.
Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency, OCHA, expressed hope that the pause "leads to a longer-term humanitarian ceasefire".
The UN estimates that 1.7 million of Gaza's 2.4 million people have been displaced by Israel's war.
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 attack.
Ziv Agmon, legal adviser to Netanyahu's office, told reporters before the hostages were freed that they would be received individually or in groups by 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.
Agmon said soldiers had been 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, he 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 of their abduction.
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.
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 on the list of those due to be released.
"This is incredibly difficult for me; I long for their return," she wrote.