KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) — Hamas agreed to release 13 Israelis and seven foreigners late Saturday in exchange for 39 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, Qatari and Egyptian mediators said, after the militant group delayed the second round of swaps for several hours and claimed that Israel had violated the terms of a truce deal.
The last-minute snag had created a tense standoff on the second day of what was meant to be a four-day cease-fire. By nightfall, as the hostages should have emerged from Gaza, Hamas alleged that the aid deliveries permitted by Israel fell short of what was promised and that not enough of the aid was reaching northern Gaza — the focus of Israel’s ground offensive and main combat zone. Hamas also said not enough veteran prisoners were freed in the first swap on Friday.
“This is putting the deal in danger and we have spoken to mediators about that,” Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas official, said in Beirut. But Egypt, Qatar and Hamas itself later said obstacles had been overcome, and Hamas issued a statement listing six women and 33 boys and teenagers it said were expected to be released by the Israelis.
While uncertainty around the details of the exchange remained, there was some optimism, too, amid earlier scenes of joyous families reuniting on both sides.
On the first day of the four-day cease-fire, Hamas released 24 of the roughly 240 hostages taken during its Oct. 7 attack on Israel that triggered the war, and Israel freed 39 Palestinians from prison. Those freed in Gaza were 13 Israelis, 10 Thais and a Filipino.
Overall, Hamas is to release at least 50 Israeli hostages, and Israel 150 Palestinian prisoners, during the four-day truce — all woman and minors.
Israel has said the truce can be extended an extra day for every additional 10 hostages freed — something U.S. President Joe Biden said he hoped would occur.
Separately, a Qatari delegation arrived in Israel on Saturday to coordinate with parties on the ground and “ensure the deal continues to move smoothly,” according to a diplomat briefed on the visit. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details with the media.
The start of the pause brought quiet for 2.3 million Palestinians reeling from relentless Israeli bombardment that has killed thousands, driven three-quarters of the population from their homes and leveled residential areas. Rocket fire from Gaza militants into Israel went silent.
War-weary Palestinians in northern Gaza, the focus of Israel’s ground offensive, returned to the streets, crunching over rubble between shattered buildings and at times digging through it with bare hands. At the Indonesian hospital in Jabaliya, besieged by the Israeli military earlier this month, bodies lay in the courtyard and outside the main gate.
For Emad Abu Hajer, a resident of the Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza City area, the pause meant he could again search through the remains of his home, which was flattened in an Israeli attack last week.
He found the bodies of a cousin and nephew, bring the death toll in the attack to 19. With his sister and two other relatives still missing, he resumed his digging Saturday.
“We want to find them and bury them in dignity,” he said.
The United Nations said the pause enabled it to scale up the delivery of food, water, and medicine to the largest volume since the resumption of aid convoys on Oct. 21. It was also able to deliver 129,000 liters (34,078 gallons) of fuel — just over 10% of the daily pre-war volume — as well as cooking gas, a first since the war began.
In the southern city of Khan Younis on Saturday, a long line of people with containers waited outside a filling station. Hossam Fayad lamented that the pause in fighting was only for four days.
“I wish it could be extended until people’s conditions improved,” he said.
For the first time in over a month, aid reached northern Gaza. The Palestinian Red Crescent said 61 trucks carrying food, water and medical supplies headed there on Saturday, the largest aid convoy to reach the area yet.
The U.N. said it and the Palestinian Red Crescent were also able to evacuate 40 patients and family members from a hospital in Gaza City, where much of the fighting has taken place, to a hospital in Khan Younis.
The relief brought by the cease-fire has been tempered, however. For Israelis, by the fact that not all hostages will be freed. For Palestinians, by the brevity of the pause.
At least two Palestinians were injured Saturday at a tense West Bank checkpoint where Israel was to free prisoners. Israeli security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets at Palestinians gathered at Beitunia checkpoint. It was not clear how the two were injured.
FIRST HOSTAGES FREED
In Tel Aviv, several thousand people packed a central square called “the square of the hostages,” awaiting news of the second release.
“Don’t forget the others because it’s getting harder, harder and harder. It’s heartbreaking,” said Neri Gershon, a Tel Aviv resident. Some families have accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government of not doing enough to bring hostages home.
The freed Israelis included nine women and four children ages 9 and under. They were taken to Israeli hospitals for observation and were declared to be in good condition.
Hours later, 24 Palestinian women and 15 teenage boys held in Israeli prisons in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem were freed. The teenagers had been jailed for minor offenses like throwing stones. The women included several convicted of trying to stab Israeli soldiers.
“It’s a happiness tainted with sorrow because our release from prison came at the cost of the lives of martyrs and the innocence of children,” said one released prisoner, Aseel Munir al-Titi.
According to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, an advocacy group, Israel is holding 7,200 Palestinians, including about 2,000 arrested since the start of the war.
A LONGER PEACE?
The war erupted when several thousand Hamas militants stormed into southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking scores of hostages, including babies, women and older adults, as well as soldiers.
“We will return immediately at the end of the cease-fire to attacking in Gaza, operating in Gaza,” Herzi Halevi, Israeli chief of staff, told soldiers.
Israeli leaders have said they won’t stop until Hamas, which has controlled Gaza for the past 16 years, is crushed. Israeli officials have argued that only military pressure can bring the hostages home. But the government is under pressure from hostages’ families to prioritize the release of the remaining captives.
The Israeli offensive has killed more than 13,300 Palestinians, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza government. Women and minors have consistently made up around two-thirds of the dead. The figure does not include updated numbers from hospitals in the north, where communications have broken down.
Magdy reported from Cairo and Mroue from Beirut. Associated Press writer Julia Frankel in Jerusalem contributed.