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Hamas freed 17 captives including 14 Israeli civilians on Sunday as the precarious truce in Gaza stretched into a third day.
The hostages, who were handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross, were the third group to be released in as many days, and included three Thai nationals, according to Hamas and the Israeli military.
The Israeli military said the Red Cross transferred 13 women and children to it “adjacent to the border fence” in the central Gaza Strip, with most of them making their way by convoy to a nearby army base and one evacuated via helicopter to hospital.
An Israeli-Russian dual-national and the three Thais were transferred by the Red Cross to Egypt via the Rafah border crossing before travelling to Israel.
According to the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, the group of released hostages included 84-year-old Alma Avraham and Abigail Idan, 4, a dual Israeli-American national. In total nine Israeli children were included in the latest batch of hostages released.
In remarks after the release, US President Joe Biden highlighted Idan’s story, saying her mother and father were murdered in front of her before she was taken hostage and that she celebrated her birthday in captivity.
“What she endured is unthinkable . . . I wish I was there to hold her,” Biden said, adding: “We will not stop working until every hostage is returned to their loved ones.”
The Israel Prison Service on Sunday released 39 Palestinian prisoners, in accordance with the deal brokered by Qatar, the US and Egypt last week.
The agreement calls for 50 Israeli women and children seized by Hamas during its October 7 attack on southern Israel to be released in groups over the course of four days, in exchange for 150 Palestinian women and children prisoners and an increase in humanitarian aid to the strip.
Hamas said it released the Israeli-Russian dual-national, Ron Krivoi, 25, as a gesture of “appreciation” to President Vladimir Putin for his support for the Palestinian cause.
Both sides are supposed to meet daily commitments in order to maintain the deal. Late on Saturday, Hamas freed 13 Israeli civilians and four Thais. In turn, Israeli authorities released 39 Palestinians.
Israel has committed to “pause” its military offensive in the Hamas-ruled strip for the duration of the agreement, which went into effect on Friday. The Palestinian militant group has also ceased fire.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday met Israeli forces inside Gaza on his first visit to the strip since the start of the war.
“We have three goals for this war: eliminate Hamas, return all our hostages and ensure that Gaza does not become a threat to the State of Israel again,” Netanyahu said. “I am here to say: we will continue until the end — until victory. Nothing will stop us.”
On Sunday, Hamas confirmed four senior commanders had been killed in Israeli air strikes before the halt in fighting, including Ahmed al-Ghandour, commander of the group’s Northern Gaza Brigade, and Ayman Siam, head of the group’s rocket forces.
A senior Israeli military official said last week that “more than 50” Hamas commanders and “many thousands” of fighters had been killed since the start of the war.
Sunday’s hostage-prisoner exchange was the third in as many days. On Friday, 13 Israeli civilians and 11 foreign nationals were released, along with 39 Palestinian women and children.
Hamas and other Gaza-based militant groups are thought to still be holding around 180 Israelis and foreign nationals. The releases of foreign citizens have come in addition to the terms of the deal for Israeli hostages.
The deal was temporarily thrown into doubt on Saturday after Hamas claimed the number of humanitarian aid trucks entering Gaza was inadequate.
The dispute was later “overcome” through Qatari-Egyptian mediation, according to Qatari foreign ministry spokesperson Majed al-Ansari. But it demonstrated the fragility of the accord, which is the first pause in fighting since Hamas launched its attack on southern Israeli communities on October 7, killing at least 1,200 people according to Israeli officials.
Israel responded with a sustained bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza in which Palestinian officials say at least 13,300 people have been killed and 1.7mn displaced.
Aid workers and western officials have warned of the difficulty of moving aid into Gaza because of logistical hurdles and Israeli checks.
UN and Israeli military officials said some 200 trucks of aid, including fuel and cooking gas, entered the strip through Egypt on Saturday, with a similar number of trucks expected on Sunday. Shipments since Friday have been the largest to Gaza since Israel laid siege to the enclave of 2.3mn people when the war erupted.
Additional reporting by Alex Rogers in Washington