Israel and Hamas agreed on Wednesday to a ceasefire in Gaza for at least four days, to let in aid and release at least 50 hostages captured by militants in exchange for at least 150 Palestinians jailed in Israel.
The first truce in a brutal near seven-week-old war, reached after mediation by Qatar, was hailed around the world as a sign of progress that could ease the suffering of Gaza’s civilians and bring more Israeli hostages home. Israel said the ceasefire could be extended further, as long as more hostages were freed.
Hamas and allied groups captured around 240 hostages when gunmen rampaged through southern Israeli towns on October 7. Previously, Hamas had released just four.
The truce was not expected to begin until Thursday morning. The start time had yet to be officially announced as of early afternoon on Wednesday.
A statement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Tuesday night said 50 women and children would be released over four days at a rate of at least 10 per day. Beyond that, the truce could be extended as long as an additional ten hostages were freed per day.
It made no mention of the release of Palestinian detainees, but Israel’s justice ministry published a list of 300 names of Palestinian prisoners who could be freed.
“Israel’s government is committed to return all the hostages home. Tonight, it approved the proposed deal as a first stage to achieving this goal,” said the government statement.
Hamas said the initial 50 hostages would be released in exchange for 150 Palestinian women and children held in Israeli jails. Hundreds of trucks of humanitarian, medical and fuel supplies would enter Gaza, while Israel would halt all air sorties over southern Gaza and maintain a daily six-hour daytime no-fly window in the north, it said.
Israel has placed Gaza under siege and relentless bombardment since the Hamas attack, which killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli tallies. Since then, more than 14,000 Gazans have been killed, around 40 percent of them children, according to medical officials in the Hamas-ruled territory, figures deemed reliable by the United Nations.
Qatar’s chief negotiator in ceasefire talks, Minister of State at the Foreign Ministry Mohammed Al-Khulaifi, told Reuters the truce meant there would be “no attack whatsoever. No military movements, no expansion, nothing.”
Qatar hopes the deal “will be a seed to a bigger agreement and a permanent cease of fire. And that’s our intention,” he said.
Pending the start of the truce there was no let-up in fighting. As morning broke, smoke from explosions could be seen rising above northern Gaza in live Reuters video from across the fence.
Israel’s military released footage of soldiers shooting in narrow alleyways and said it had carried out air strikes. Its “forces continue to operate within the Strip’s territory to destroy terrorist infrastructure, eliminate terrorists and locate weaponry”, it said.
An Egyptian security source said mediators sought a truce start time of 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, though this was still awaiting confirmation from the Israelis, with Hamas seeking a few hours from the start to begin freeing hostages. A spokesperson for Israel’s Defense Ministry said the truce would likely take hold “sometime tomorrow.”
‘What truce can there be?’
The truce deal is a first small step towards peace in the most violent ruction of the 75-year-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The past seven weeks have shocked the world because of the suffering of civilians on both sides, beginning with the killing of Israeli families in their homes and continuing with destruction rained down on Gaza, home to 2.3 million people.
“What truce can there be after what happened to us? We are all are dead people,” said Mona, a woman in Gaza whose nieces and nephews were among those killed by an Israeli airstrike that hit the home of the Seyam family. “This will not bring back what we lost, will not heal our hearts or make up for the tears we shed.”
Kamelia Hoter Ishay, whose 13-year-old granddaughter Gali Tarashansky is believed held in Gaza, said she would not believe reports of a deal until she got a call that the girl was freed.
“And then I’ll know that it’s really over and I can breathe a sigh of relief and say that’s it, it’s over,” she said.
Both Israel and Hamas said that the truce would not halt their broader missions: “We are at war and we will continue the war until we achieve all our goals. To destroy Hamas, return all our hostages and ensure that no entity in Gaza can threaten Israel,” Netanyahu said in a recorded message.
Hamas said in its statement: “As we announce the striking of a truce agreement, we affirm that our fingers remain on the trigger, and our victorious fighters will remain on the look-out to defend our people and defeat the occupation.”
Still there was some hope of a step towards broader peace.
“We hope the truce will happen and there will be good solutions, and we hope people will live peacefully, return to their homes and workplaces with stability,” said Abu Jihad Shameya, displaced from north Gaza and taking refuge in southern Khan Younis.
US President Joe Biden was among international leaders who welcomed the deal. Three Americans, including a 3-year-old girl whose parents were killed during Hamas’ October 7 attack, are expected to be among the hostages to be released, a senior US official said.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said the agreed expansion of access for humanitarian aid should become permanent.
“Whatever humanitarian access now increases as a result of this hostage deal must remain in place and must be built upon,” he said. “There must at no point be a reduction in this access based on progress for further release of hostages … Punishing the civilian population of Gaza for the holding of those hostages is absolutely not acceptable.”