Hamas releases 13 Israeli, four Thai hostages in temporary truce

GAZA/JERUSALEM – Thirteen Israelis and four Thai nationals arrived in Israel on Sunday in the second release of hostages from Hamas captivity in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in a deal briefly endangered by a dispute about aid delivery into Gaza.

Although overcome by the mediation of Egypt and Qatar, the dispute that threatened the truce to free captives underscored the fragility of the pact meant to release 50 hostages held by the Palestinian militant groups and 150 prisoners held in Israeli jails over four days.

Television images showed hostages on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing after leaving Gaza, as Hamas handed the captives to the International Committee of the Red Cross late on Saturday.

Six of the 13 Israelis released were women and seven were children and teenagers.

“The released hostages are on their way to hospitals in Israel, where they will re-unite with their families,” the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said in a statement.

Israel released 39 Palestinians — six women and 33 minors — from two prisons, the Palestinian news agency WAFA said.

Some of the Palestinians arrived at Al-Bireh Municipality Square in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where thousands of citizens awaited them, a Reuters witness said.

A Palestinian official familiar with the diplomatic moves said Hamas would continue the truce, the first halt in fighting since Hamas fighters rampaged through southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages.

In response to that attack, Israel has vowed to destroy the Hamas militants who run Gaza, raining bombs and shells on the enclave and launching a ground offensive in the north. Some 14,800 people, roughly 40% of them children, have been killed, Palestinian health authorities said on Saturday.

Saturday’s swap follows the previous day’s initial release of 13 Israeli hostages, including children and the elderly, by Hamas in return for the release of 39 Palestinian women and young people from Israeli prisons.

On Friday Hamas also released a Philippine national and 10 Thai farm workers.

The four Thais released on Saturday “want a shower and to contact their relatives”, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said a day later on social media platform X, adding that all were safe and showed few ill-effects.

Eighteen Thais remain captive, Thailand’s foreign ministry said on Sunday.

“I’m so happy, I’m so glad, I can’t describe my feeling at all,” Thongkoon Onkaew told Reuters by telephone, after news of the release of her 26-year-old son Natthaporn Onkaew, the family’s sole breadwinner.

How to prioritize releases

The deal risked being derailed when Hamas’ armed wing said on Saturday it was delaying releases until Israel met all truce conditions, including committing to let aid trucks into northern Gaza.

Ensuring that the deal did not collapse took a day of high-stakes diplomacy mediated by Qatar and Egypt, a process US President Joe Biden joined, calling Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

Hamas spokesperson Osama Hamdan said only 65 of 340 aid trucks that had entered Gaza since Friday had reached northern Gaza, which was “less than half of what Israel agreed on”.

Al-Qassam Brigades, the Hamas armed wing, also said Israel had failed to respect terms for the release of Palestinian prisoners that factored in their time in detention.

The IDF said the United Nations and international organizations distribute aid inside the Gaza Strip. The UN said 61 trucks delivered aid to northern Gaza on Saturday, the most since the war began seven weeks ago. They included food, water and emergency medical supplies.

Qatari foreign ministry spokesman Majed Al-Ansari said there had been “a lot of discussion” on how and whom to prioritize for release and that a key criterion for the Palestinian side was the length of time spent in Israeli prisons.

“We are now hopeful that, with the second or the third day of this pause, we would be able to hash out a lot of these details that made this day so difficult,” he told CNN.

Israel has said the ceasefire could be extended if Hamas continued to release at least 10 hostages a day. A Palestinian source has said up to 100 hostages could go free.

‘Heart is split’

Saturday also brought hours of nail-biting waiting for the families of hostages, some of whose joy was tempered by the continued captivity of others.

“My heart is split because my son, Itay, is still in Hamas’ captivity in Gaza,” Mirit Regev, the mother of Maya Regev, one of those released late on Saturday, said in a statement from the Hostage and Missing Families Forum that represents the families.

Also released was nine-year-old Irish-Israeli hostage Emily Hand, who was initially thought to have been killed. She spent her ninth birthday in captivity and was released alongside 12-year-old Hila Rotem, whose mother remains in captivity. “We are overjoyed to embrace Emily again, but at the same time, we remember Raya Rotem and all the hostages who have yet to return,” Hand’s family said in a statement.

Palestinians’ joy at the release of prisoners from Israeli jails was tinged with bitterness.

“I feel like I am in a dream, but I hope that the war on Gaza will stop as soon as possible,” one of them, Shorouk Dwayyat, who had served half her term of 16 years, told Al Jazeera TV from her home, saying her joy was mixed with pain. —Reuters

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