Israel and Hamas agreed to free 50 civilian hostages held by militants in Gaza in return for the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and a four-day pause in fighting.
The Israeli cabinet approved the deal after a long deliberation that started Tuesday and went into the early morning hours of Wednesday in Jerusalem. It capped weeks of painstaking negotiations brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the U.S., marking the first major diplomatic breakthrough since the war began on Oct. 7. Hamas confirmed the deal in a statement.
“I am extraordinarily gratified that some of these brave souls, who have endured weeks of captivity and an unspeakable ordeal, will be reunited with their families once this deal is fully implemented,” President Biden said in a statement. “It is important that all aspects of this deal be fully implemented.”
The deal will be carried out in two phases. In the first, 30 children, eight mothers and 12 other women will be released over four days, when all ground and air military operations will be put on hold across the entire Gaza Strip. The first hostages could be freed as early as Thursday, people familiar with the deal said.
In exchange, Israel will release 150 Palestinian women and minors held in Israeli prisons. Israel has also agreed to forgo any drone surveillance in northern Gaza for six hours, the people said.
The starting time of the pause in fighting “will be announced within the next 24 hours and last for four days, subject to extension,” Qatar’s Foreign Ministry said on social media. It added that during the pause, humanitarian convoys and relief aid, including fuel, will be allowed to enter Gaza.
In the second phase, up to 30 hostages would be released over a three-day period. In that phase, non-Israeli hostages could be freed, the people said.
Ahead of the announcement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel will continue to fight the war against Hamas despite the pauses. Israel would continue “the war in order to return all the hostages, to complete the elimination of Hamas and to ensure that there will be no renewed threat from Gaza to the State of Israel,” the government said in a statement.
Israeli airstrikes on Gaza continued in the early hours of Wednesday. More than 30 people were killed and 10 houses destroyed in the Gaza City neighborhood of Shujaiyeh, according to the enclave’s civil-defense unit, which handles emergency services and rescue. The Israeli military said its aircraft had bombed what it said was “terrorist infrastructure” and killed several militants.
The Israeli government published a list of 300 Palestinian prisoners it plans to free if Hamas were to release 100 hostages. None of the detainees—who are all women and minors—had been convicted of killing Israelis. Most were jailed for throwing stones or incendiary objects and a small number for attempted murder. A small number were Hamas members, with most having no political affiliation.
Family members of some of the hostages said they had yet to be notified by the Israeli government of any release. “We don’t have the privilege to celebrate,” said Shani Segal, a cousin of Rimon Kirsht, who was kidnapped from a kibbutz near the Gaza border. She said she and other families of hostages would “continue our fights as families to bring them all back…And hope this is just the beginning.”
U.S. officials hailed the agreement between Israel and Hamas to release 50 hostages, including at least three Americans, as a major breakthrough following intensive negotiations for the last several weeks.
“We’re determined to get everyone home,” one U.S. official said.
U.S. officials also believe a pause in the fighting could also ease some hostilities near Lebanon where the Israel Defense Forces and Lebanese Hezbollah have been exchanging attacks. The U.S. has been acutely concerned about the violence inside Gaza spreading to other parts of the region.
For Israel, the exchange helps alleviate mounting domestic pressure on Netanyahu to cement a deal to free the 236 men, women and children being held by Hamas, including as many as 10 Americans, U.S. officials have said. In exchange for the hostages, Hamas stands to realize one of its long-held goals of freeing Palestinian prisoners being held by Israel, whom many Palestinians view as wrongly imprisoned.
The agreement is facing criticism in some quarters in Israel. Orit Strook, the minister of settlements and a member of the right-wing Religious Zionist Party, said the families of hostages should focus their pressure on Hamas rather than the government. “It is necessary to make it clear…the goal of defeating Hamas does not bow to the goal of freeing the abductees,” she said.
Eliyahu Liebman, the father of one of the hostages, Shlomo Eliakim Liebman, told Israel’s Army Radio, “Those terrorists who will be released in such a horrible and dubious deal is more blood on the hands of this government and the security forces.”
International pressure has been growing for Israel to cease its incursion into Gaza, which has killed 13,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, according to authorities in Hamas-run Gaza, and touched off a humanitarian crisis. The figures don’t distinguish between militants and civilians. The Israeli military says it has taken all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties, but accuses Hamas of using Gazans as shields, which Hamas denies.