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Israeli helicopter transporting released hostages Alamy
israel-hamas war

Hamas hands over released hostages to Red Cross in Gaza

The Israeli hostages, all women, were handed over by masked and armed fighters.

LAST UPDATE | Nov 28th 2023, 8:00 PM

A NEW GROUP of hostages were freed from Gaza captivity in exchange for Palestinian prisoners under an extended truce, as mediators worked for a lasting halt to the seven-week Israel-Hamas war.

Ten Israelis and two foreigners were handed over to the Red Cross and were “inside Israeli territory”, the army said.

An AFP journalist saw masked and armed fighters, some from Hamas and others from Islamic Jihad, hand over the released hostages to Red Cross officials in Rafah, near the border with Egypt.

International figures hailed the pause in hostilities and releases of captives as a cause for hope in the conflict sparked by deadly Hamas attacks that prompted an Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Israel and Hamas accused each other of violating the extended pause in incidents on Tuesday, though Qatari officials mediating in the conflict said this did not knock the truce off track.

As a two-day extension to the truce appeared to be holding Tuesday, US and Israeli intelligence chiefs were in Doha, capital of Qatar, to discuss the “next phase” of the deal, a source briefed on their visit said.

Israel and Hamas are under international pressure not to return to all-out fighting when the latest truce ends on Thursday.

A source close to the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas earlier told AFP that Tuesday’s group of 10 Israeli hostages would be freed in return for 30 prisoners held by Israel.

The release of the two foreign hostages came in addition to the release of the 10 Israelis under the terms of the deal.

The truce paused fighting that began on October 7 when Hamas militants poured over the border into Israel, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping about 240.

Israel’s retaliatory ground and air operation in the Gaza Strip has killed almost 15,000 people, mostly civilians, according to the territory’s Hamas government.

Truce violations alleged

Palestinian movements denounced what they dubbed “truce violations by the occupier”, and an AFP journalist saw an Israeli tank fire three times in the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood of Gaza City as Palestinians attempted to return to their homes.

The Israeli military described the shelling as “warning shots”, saying a tank fired as suspected militants approached army positions. At least one person was hurt, the AFP reporter saw.

The army also alleged that three explosive devices were detonated near its forces in northern Gaza, “violating the framework of the operational pause”.

“In one of the locations, terrorists also opened fire at the troops, who responded with fire. A number of soldiers were lightly injured during the incidents,” the army said, adding that its troops were positioned in compliance with the truce agreement.

Qatar’s foreign ministry spokesperson Majed Al Ansari reported “some minimal breaches” which, he told a news conference, “did not harm the essence of the agreement”.

Israeli bombardments since October 7 have left buildings flattened in Gaza and residents walking through the rubble of ruined homes.

“I hope this truce will lead to a complete ceasefire, because we are fed up of sleeping outdoors in the rain, of losing our loved ones and having to flee,” said Umm Mohammed, who was driven from her home in northern Gaza by the assault.

“One day for sure I will return… and I hope that my house will be waiting for me,” she told AFP.

‘Next phase’

Israel has vowed to stick to its war aim of destroying Hamas and rescuing all remaining hostages.

“The return of the hostages is a bright light for us all,” Israel’s army chief Herzi Halevi said in a video released by the military.

The release of dozens so far “is also further evidence of the results of significant military pressure and resolute ground operations, which created the conditions for the return of our civilians home”, Halevi said.

Qatari spokesman Ansari said that his government would use the extension to work for a “sustainable truce”.

The head of the CIA and the director of Israel’s Mossad spy agency were in Doha to discuss the truce with Qatar’s prime minister, a source briefed on their visit said, asking not to be named due to the talks’ sensitivity.

The discussions aim “to build on the progress of the extended humanitarian pause agreement and to initiate further discussions about the next phase of a potential deal,” the source added.

Before the latest round of exchanges on Tuesday, 50 Israeli hostages and 150 Palestinian prisoners — all women and minors — had been released under the initial truce agreement.

Another 19 hostages held in Gaza have been freed under separate deals since the truce began on Friday, including Thai workers and a dual Russian-Israeli citizen.

Among images of the hostages released on Monday, a video released by the Israeli military showed French-Israeli Eitan Yahalomi, 12, reunited with his mother, who gripped him tightly to her.

The boy’s aunt told French news channel BFMTV that his mother had said he lived through “horrors” in captivity, including being struck by Palestinian civilians and threatened with weapons.

In Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, Palestinian prisoner Muhammad Abu al-Humus called his release “an indescribable joy” and kissed his mother’s hand as he entered his home.

“I’m very happy. I hope that others will soon be released — my friends, my cousins.”

Call for Gaza aid

Israel vIews the truce as a temporary measure to secure hostage releases and says it plans to continue its military offensive against Hamas.

“We are committed to completing these missions: freeing all of the hostages, eliminating this terrorist organisation above and below ground,” Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video released by his office.

But Israel faces increasing pressure for a more lasting ceasefire and the ramp-up of humanitarian aid to Gaza, where an estimated 1.7 million people have been displaced, according to the United Nations.

On Monday, US President Joe Biden said he had warned Israel that its expected offensive in southern Gaza must avoid the kind of mass displacement of civilians seen during the military’s pummeling of the north.

The World Food Programme said it had delivered food to 121,161 people in Gaza since Friday, but that a high risk of famine remained.

“What we see is catastrophic,” said WFP’s director for the Middle East, Corinne Fleischer.

© AFP 2023