Hamas has released 24 hostages who had been held in the Gaza Strip and Israel freed 39 Palestinian prisoners, as a temporary ceasefire took hold after more than six weeks of war.
In the first such exchange since Hamas seized more than 200 hostages in its deadly October 7 attack, the militant group set free 13 Israeli women and children on Friday, among them a two-year-old boy and five-year-old girl. It also released 10 Thai nationals and one Filipino.
Qatar, which mediated the deal, added Israel had freed 39 Palestinian prisoners, all women and children.
“We have now completed the return of the first of our abductees,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “We are committed to the return of all our abductees. This is one of the goals of the war, and we are committed to achieving all the goals of the war.”
Fighting in Gaza and Israel’s bombardment of the territory ceased on Friday morning, hours before Red Cross trucks ferried the hostages into Egypt as night fell.
Outside the Ofer prison in the occupied West Bank, hundreds gathered to greet released Palestinian prisoners, singing patriotic songs and setting off fireworks.
The temporary truce was the first halt to hostilities since October 7 and set the stage for what is due to become the staggered release of 50 women and children held by Hamas and 150 Palestinian prisoners in Israel.
US President Joe Biden on Friday said the hostage releases had involved “extensive US diplomacy”, although none of the Americans held in Gaza were among the people freed on Friday. He suggested diplomacy could now turn to more lasting peace.
“We also look to the future, we have to end this cycle of violence in the Middle East,” Biden told reporters in Massachusetts. “We need to renew our resolve to pursue this two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can one day live side by side in a two-state solution with equal measure of freedom and dignity to states for two people.”
The ceasefire, which is due to last four days if the two sides comply with the deal, also paved the way for the biggest humanitarian convoy into Gaza since the war started.
The UN said 200 trucks carrying aid were dispatched to the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, but only 137 made it into the besieged strip. In addition, 129,000 litres of fuel were delivered to the enclave.
Six of the freed Israeli hostages were women over the age of 70, according to a list provided by the prime minister’s office. Yaffa Adar, seen on video being taken to Gaza by militants in a golf cart on October 7, is the eldest in the group at 85.
Family groupings were among the freed captives, including mother and daughter Danielle and Emilia Aloni, as well as three members of the Monder family and three members of the Asher family. A total of four children aged nine and under were released. The youngest released on Friday, Aviv Asher, is two years old.
Israel’s military on Friday evening said the hostages had undergone an initial medical assessment after transiting through Egypt to Israel.
“They will continue to be accompanied by . . . soldiers as they make their way to Israeli hospitals, where they will be reunited with their families,” the Israel Defense Forces said.
Hagai Levine, head of the medical team for the Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum, said some of the released people “have severe chronic diseases”, although it was not clear why Hamas had selected these individuals to be released.
“Now we need to help them to gain control over their lives, to become humans again,” Levine said.
The 39 Palestinians released by Israel included many teenagers and women, although a list released by Hamas on Friday did not specify ages.
“My happiness right now is great. But at the same time, it’s very difficult because our release is coming after the blood of so many martyrs was shed in Gaza,” said Marah Bakir, 23, in an interview with Al Jazeera. Bakir was arrested for her involvement in a stabbing attack in 2015, when she was 15, and later sentenced to eight years in prison.
Bakir and others claimed conditions in Israeli prison had worsened after October 7, saying detainees had been denied access to communications, food and medical treatment. The Israel Prison Service could not be reached for comment.
Al Jazeera showed celebrations in the occupied West Bank as families greeted prisoners, including some who had been remanded just weeks before the conflict erupted in October.
They included Jamal Barahma, a 17-year-old from Jericho who had been charged as a minor but not convicted. “They warned us off participating in anything else, in any other incidents,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to the Israelis who had released him.
Israeli police in East Jerusalem intervened to stop Palestinians from celebrating the release of their loved ones, eyewitnesses said, using tear gas and stun grenades to disperse well-wishers who had set up tents with sweets and fireworks.
Under the truce both sides must abide by an agreed sequence of actions, with Israel allowing aid deliveries, Hamas releasing hostages and Israel in turn freeing prisoners, a person familiar with the situation said. This sequence must be repeated each day for the ceasefire to hold.
Netanyahu said ahead of the ceasefire that Israel would continue the war to achieve “complete victory” after the pause was over.
Israel’s military also stressed that fighting would begin once the temporary truce was over. “During the days of the pause, the IDF will continue the preparations for the next phases of the war”, said IDF spokesperson Daniel Hagari on Friday evening.
In its October 7 attack, Hamas seized dozens of Thai workers, alongside Israelis, dual nationals and others, with a total of about 240 people taken captive, according to Israeli officials.
Four other hostages had been unilaterally released by Hamas ahead of Friday’s releases, while one was rescued by Israeli forces.
A further hostage, 19-year-old soldier Noa Marciano, was confirmed to have died while she was held captive, while the body of another, Yehudit Weiss, was found in Gaza.
About 1,200 people were killed in Israel during Hamas’s assault on October 7, Israeli officials have said. Some 13,300 people have died in Israel’s bombardment and ground incursion into Gaza since then, according to officials in the Hamas-controlled strip, while 1.7mn people have been displaced.
Additional reporting by Aime Williams