Israel and the PLO initiated a four-day ceasefire wherein hostages would be freed in exchange for prisoners on Friday. This marked the first significant break in seven weeks of conflict that has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives.
The pause began at 7:00 a.m. (0500 GMT) after prolonged negotiations, silencing guns that have raged since Hamas’s raids into Israel on October 7.
Later on Friday, 13 hostages held in Gaza will be freed, followed by an undefined number of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, according to Qatari mediators.
Over the four days, at least 50 hostages are expected to be released, leaving an estimated 190 in the hands of Palestinian militant groups.
Over the same period, 150 Palestinians prisoners are expected to be released.
For Gaza’s two million-plus residents, the deal spells a respite from weeks of sustained Israeli bombardment.
The territory’s Hamas government says the war has so far killed about 15,000 people and displaced countless more.
The exact number of casualties is impossible to independently confirm, but it is clear that for many Palestinian and Israeli families, the pause in violence has already come too late.
“The living here are the ones who are dead,” Fida Zayed, a Gazan whose 20-year-old son Udai was killed in a recent air strike, said.
“The last thing he said to me was that he was waiting for the truce on Friday,” she said. “He asked me to prepare him a feast of rice and chicken.”
“I hope me and my children die here so we don’t have to mourn each other.”
Qatari officials said the “first batch” of 13 hostages released would be women and children from the same families.
Teams of Israeli trauma experts and medics await them — along with specially trained soldiers who, according to guidelines, will promise to keep them safe and will carry a child’s favorite food item, be it pizza or chicken schnitzel.
An Egyptian security source said that Israeli security officials, International Red Cross-Red Crescent staff and an Egyptian team would deploy to Rafah, on the Egypt-Gaza border, to receive the hostages, who will then be flown to Israel.
AFP has confirmed the identities of 210 of the roughly 240 people abducted during cross-border attacks by Hamas on military posts, communities and a desert music festival.
At least 35 of those taken hostage were children, with 18 of them aged 10 or under at the time of the Hamas attack.
Israel says around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the October 7 attacks.
Little is publicly known about which hostages remain alive, or in what conditions the hostages have been held.
The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it had received “a first list of names” of those due to be released and been in contact with the families. It did not specify who was on the list.
Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails will also be released on Friday, Qatari foreign ministry spokesperson Majed Al Ansari said, adding a list of names had been approved.
The agreement entailed a “complete cease-fire with no attacks from the air or the ground” and the skies clear of drones to “allow for the hostage release to happen in a safe environment,” Ansari said.
Israel has published a list comprising the names of a total of 300 Palestinians who could be released, should the truce outlive the initial four-day period.
Among them are 33 women and 267 children and youths aged 19 and under. The list also includes 49 Hamas members.
The armed wing of Hamas confirmed the cessation of hostilities would start at 7:00 am under the deal that is also intended to provide aid to Gazans struggling to survive with shortages of food, water and fuel.
It said three Palestinian prisoners would be released for each one of the hostages.
Palestinian prisoners will be released from three jails in Israel and the occupied West Bank, then taken to the Ofer military camp on buses, an Israeli official said on condition of anonymity, adding that they were expected to be freed in the evening.
Most are from the West Bank but five are from the Gaza Strip.
Governments around the world have welcomed the agreement, with some expressing hope it will lead to a lasting end to the war.
“This cannot be just a pause before the massacre starts all over again,” Riyad Mansour, Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council.
Israeli officials, however, say the truce will be only temporary.
“We are not ending the war. We will continue until we are victorious,” Israel’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, told troops he visited in Gaza.
Ahead of the expected pause, fighting raged.
Anti-rocket alarms sounded in an Israeli kibbutz near the Gaza border and explosions were heard and heavy grey clouds hovered over northern Gaza, much of which has been reduced to rubble.
Hamas health ministry official Munir Al-Bursh said that Israeli soldiers had raided the Indonesian Hospital in northern Gaza.
Israel did not immediately comment on any operation at the facility, which has been the scene of days of military activity.
Israel has repeatedly claimed that hospitals have been used by Hamas to cloak underground command-and-control facilities.
Israeli forces detained the detained the director of Al-Shifa — Gaza’s largest hospital — Mohammad Abu Salmiya and other medical personnel, another doctor said on Thursday.
Hamas and medical staff have denied there was a base under Gaza’s largest hospital.