Scores of Palestinians and Israelis freed from captivity on first day of Gaza truce
Updated November 24, 2023 at 11:59 AM ET
TEL AVIV, Israel — After nearly seven weeks in captivity, 24 hostages seized by Hamas in its deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel have been freed. The captives were released late Friday afternoon at Egypt's Rafah crossing, Qatar's foreign ministry confirmed.
"Those released include 13 Israeli citizens, some of whom are dual citizens, in addition to 10 Thai citizens and a Filipino citizen," the official spokesman for Qatar's foreign ministry posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.
"A number of Thai citizens have also been released outside the framework of the truce agreement," he said.
Earlier, Thailand's Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said that 12 Thais had been freed. Their release was a surprise development.
NPR's producer Anas Baba was at the Rafah crossing in Gaza where he saw four Red Cross vehicles, at least one of which was carrying a handful of women who waved at people watching them from the sides of the road.
The deal for the release of hostages in exchange for freedom for some Palestinian prisoners was worked out over several weeks in negotiations mediated by Qatar, Egypt and the United States.
Israel is expected to free 39 Palestinians in the coming hours as part of the four-day truce hammered out in Qatar earlier this week. Under the agreement, Hamas is expected to release a total of 50 Israelis over the four-day period in exchange for 150 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
The four-day cease-fire went into effect early at 7 a.m. local time (midnight ET) on Friday. It comes weeks after the Hamas attack that killed more than 1,200 Israelis and in which roughly 240 hostages were taken, according to Israel. Israel's military has responded with airstrikes and a ground campaign in Gaza that has killed more than 12,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza's health ministry.
The first batch of Palestinians is expected to be released at Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank around 8 p.m. local time (1 p.m. ET). Subsequent hostages-for-prisoners exchanges are set to occur in batches over in the coming days of the truce, which Israel says could be extended up to 10 days.
Early reports of possible cease-fire violations
Earlier Friday as the pause in the fighting began, crowds of Palestinians were seen pouring into the streets in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis. Some Palestinians in southern Gaza tried to return to their homes for the first time since the start of the conflict.
Both Hamas and Israel blamed each other for violations of the cease-fire. Israel's military says Hamas launched rockets into Israel 15 minutes after the start of the pause, and that Israeli forces didn't retaliate. The Hamas-controlled Gaza health ministry said that two people were killed and 30 wounded when Israeli soldiers opened fire on them in the early hours of the truce. An Israeli military official told NPR they were checking on the reports, and that any shooting would be a violation of the cease-fire agreement.
Israeli security forces say they've arrested more than 1,950 "wanted persons" since the start of the conflict. It says about 1,100 of the detainees are "associated with the terrorist organization Hamas."
In southern Gaza, Mohammed El Azzazi, a pharmacist from Rafah, expressed skepticism of the cease-fire. "There are no results from this pause, a pause where people can't return to their homes and injuries among people trying to go home," he told NPR.
Meanwhile, at the Qalandiya refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Raed Hhadeh, who teaches physics at a school in Ramallah, said he had mixed feelings about the cease-fire. "I feel good for the people to have rest from the bombardment, but this is not the solution," he told NPR. "It's a massacre. They are slaughtering children and this has to be stopped."
He said that Gazans returning to their homes in the east "won't find anything left."
How the exchange is unfolding
Release of the Thai workers — which is separate from the hostage-for-prisoner exchange deal negotiated in Qatar — was confirmed by Egypt's state information service late in the afternoon. Shortly after, Thai officials said embassy officials were on their way to pick them up. Thousands of Thais work as farm laborers in Israel. Officials believe 11 more are still being held by Hamas.
Meanwhile, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Israeli soldiers fired tear gas at about 150 Palestinian protesters on Friday. Hamas released a list of the prisoners it expected to be freed, all of whom come from the West Bank or East Jerusalem.
Earlier, the Israeli military released images of a helicopter with two rows of noise-canceling headphones – ready to take the freed Israeli hostages to a military reception center. Officials said they would then be taken to hospitals to be reunited with their families. Social workers will be on hand to break the news that some of their friends and relatives were killed in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.
A senior Biden administration official said earlier this week that there are 10 dual U.S.-Israeli citizens unaccounted, three of whom could be released as part of the deal. Among those that could be released is a young girl whose parents were killed in the initial Hamas attack. The girl turns 4 on Friday.
Fighting continued in the lead-up to the cease-fire
In the hours leading up to the truce, Israel's military "intensified strikes" with intense ground battles against Hamas, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). A particular concern for the U.N. is the Indonesian Hospital in northern Gaza where about 200 patients and medical staff are still trying to evacuate. The U.N. says Israeli tanks surrounded the hospital and Gaza's Ministry of Health reported the hospital was struck again by Israeli fire.
In a statement, the Israel Defense Forces says it "has completed ... operational preparations according to the combat lines of the pause," adding that it had destroyed a tunnel complex it identified earlier this week under Al-Shifa hospital in northern Gaza.
"Over the last day and night, IDF troops on the ground, in the air, and at sea continued to strike terror targets, operate in different areas to locate suspicious structures and engage with terrorists," the military's statement said. "In addition, the forces struck a terror tunnel route, which was identified over the past few days."
About a half-hour before the cease-fire kicked in, an Israeli military spokesman released an Arabic-language video on social media addressed "to the population of sector Gaza."
"The cease-fire for humanitarian purposes is temporary," the spokesman said, insisting that northern Gaza, where the fighting has been concentrated, "is a dangerous war zone and it is forbidden to move around."
"For your safety, you must remain in the humanitarian zone in the south of the (Gaza) Strip," he said.
Humanitarian aid begins to trickle into Gaza
Large areas of Gaza have been devastated by Israeli air strikes and tanks since the conflict began, leaving much of the territory's 2.3 million people without electricity, food and clean water. According to UNRWA, the U.N. relief agency overseeing Palestinians, more than a million Gazans have been internally displaced as a result of the conflict.
According to Egypt's state information service, 130,000 liters (about 34,000 gallons) of diesel and four trucks of gas from Egypt will enter the Gaza Strip on the first day. "Humanitarian aid will begin to flow from Egypt to the Gaza Strip as soon as the truce agreement enters into force, where 200 trucks, loaded with food, medicine and water, will be entered daily for the first time since the start of the Israeli war on the Strip about fifty days ago," it said.
Israel confirmed Friday that four tanker trucks each of fuel and cooking gas had been transferred from Egypt to U.N. humanitarian aid organizations at the Rafah crossing in southern Gaza.
"This was approved by the government of Israel as part of the pause and the framework for the release of the hostages agreed with the United States and mediated by Qatar and Egypt," Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) office said in a statement. "The fuel and cooking gas are designated for operating essential humanitarian infrastructure in the Gaza Strip."
In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, UNRWA said: "No matter how much they provide — it is difficult to meet demands of the whole" Gaza Strip, adding that "over-crowding and unsanitary conditions" were leading to the spread of disease.
NPR's Scott Neuman and Daniel Estrin reported from Tel Aviv and Brian Mann contributed from Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
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