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Israeli tank moving along the Israel-Gaza border yesterday. Alamy Stock Photo
Ceasefire

Israel-Hamas ceasefire expected tomorrow, but release of 50 hostages won't begin before Friday

Hamas will free 50 of its roughly 240 hostages under the ceasefire agreement.

LAST UPDATE | Nov 22nd 2023, 9:57 PM

ISRAEL AND HAMAS have announced a deal allowing at least 50 hostages and scores of Palestinian prisoners to be freed while offering besieged Gaza residents a four-day truce after weeks of conflict. 

In the first major diplomatic breakthrough in the bloodiest ever Gaza conflict, Palestinian militants are set to release 50 women and children kidnapped during their deadly 7 October raids into southern Israel.

However, the Israel national security adviser has tonight said that there will be no hostage releases before Friday.

It had been thought that hostages would be released in a staggered manner from tomorrow. 

“We are very happy that a partial release is pending,” the Hostages and Missing Families Forum group said in a statement today.

“As of now, we don’t know exactly who will be released when.”

It is believed Irish-Israeli, 9-year-old Emily Hand is among the hostages in Gaza, captured by Hamas. The identities of the 50 hostages remain unknown.

While there were reports carried by some outlets earlier today that Emily was on an official list of hostages to be released, no announcement has yet been made by the Israeli government regarding the identities of the first hostages expected to be freed.

In a statement to The Journal, the Israeli Ambassador to Ireland said: “At this difficult time, we are not at liberty to give out any specific information.

“We are committed to the return of all the kidnapped and will continue to work tirelessly until they are all back home.”

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil today that he was hopeful Emily Hand would be among the hostages released. 

Speaking more generally, Varadkar also said: “Sadly, the Israeli government doesn’t listen to us. I’m not sure if the Israeli government listens to anyone anymore. They used to listen to the Americans. I’m not even sure that’s the case anymore.”

At tonight’s Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting, Varadkar said the temporary ceasefire “offered a spark of hope to all”.

He said he hopes Emily will be released back to her family in the coming days and added that every effort is continuing to be made through diplomatic channels to ensure Emily’s release.

Meanwhile at the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting, Tánaiste Micheál Martin said the immediate priority for the government was the release of Irish Citizens in Gaza and Emily Hand.

He added that Arab states in the region were extremely supportive, particularly Egyptian authorities. 

Martin also spoke about Lebanon and Irish peacekeepers stationed there and described the entire situation as very sensitive.

Israeli bombardment of south Lebanon yesterday killed eight people, official media said, including two journalists from Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen television, the broadcaster reported, in ongoing violence at the Lebanon-Israel border.

Martin said there is a need for the international community to redouble diplomatic efforts.

‘Difficult but right decision’

After weeks of Qatar-brokered negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet approved the truce accord at the end of an almost all-night meeting, with the premier telling ministers this was a “difficult decision but it’s a right decision”.

The cabinet’s sign-off was one of the last stumbling blocks after what one US official described as five “extremely excruciating” weeks of talks.

Hamas welcomed the “humanitarian truce” and said it would see 150 Palestinians released from Israeli jails.

Hamas is an Islamic militant group who are deemed a terrorist organisation by Israel, the US and the EU, among other powers. It has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007 after winning the 2006 Palestinian elections and taking power by force.

The current conflict started after Hamas gunmen on 7 October launched the worst attack in Israel’s history that left around 1,200 people dead, most of them civilians, according to the Israeli government.

Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups also took an estimated 240 Israelis and foreigners hostage, among them elderly people and young children.

Israel declared war on Hamas, vowing to bring the hostages home and to destroy the militant group.

It launched a major bombing campaign and ground offensive in Gaza, which, according to the Gaza health ministry, has killed 14,100 people, thousands of them children.

Israel said that to facilitate the hostage release it would initiate a four-day “pause” in its air, land and sea assault of Gaza, while it stressed that the agreement did not spell the end of the war.

Israeli news outlet Haaretz has reported that the Israel-Hamas truce is due to begin at 10am local time tomorrow (8am Irish time).

For every 10 additional hostages released, there would be an extra day’s “pause”, the Israeli government said.

However, humanitarian and human rights organisations today said a four-day truce is too short and called for more time to deliver vital aid to the Gaza Strip.

Paul O’Brien, from Amnesty International USA, said on a conference call of major non-governmental organisations that the four-day truce was “not enough and it’s certainly not enough in human rights terms”.

‘Brave souls’

Sources from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group had earlier told AFP the truce would include a ceasefire on the ground and a pause in Israeli air operations over southern Gaza.

The negotiations have involved the US Central Intelligence Agency, Israel’s overseas spy agency Mossad, Egyptian intelligence, and leaders in Doha, Cairo, Washington, Gaza and Israel.

A senior US official said three Americans, including three-year-old Abigail Mor Idan, were among the 50 earmarked for staggered release.

US President Joe Biden said he was “extraordinarily gratified that some of these brave souls … will be reunited with their families once this deal is fully implemented”.

palestinians-search-for-survivors-of-the-israeli-bombing-in-rafah-gaza-strip-wednesday-nov-22-2023-ap-photohatem-ali Palestinians search for survivors of the Israeli bombing in Rafah, Gaza Strip Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Qatar’s foreign ministry confirmed the deal, saying that “a number of Palestinian women and children detained in Israeli prisons” would be released in exchange for the hostages.

“The starting time of the pause will be announced within the next 24 hours and last for four days, subject to extension,” the ministry said.

Israel released the names of 300 Palestinian prisoners being considered for release, without specifying who might be freed in the first phase.

Among the Palestinians slated for release is Shrouq Dwayyat, convicted of attempted murder in a 2015 knife attack.

The deal has been welcomed by countries including Britain, China, France, Germany, Jordan and Egypt, where the office of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi touted the “success” of mediation by Cairo, Doha and Washington.

The Palestinian Authority also hailed the agreement while reiterating its call for “a comprehensive cessation of the Israeli aggression” and more aid deliveries, senior official Hussein al-Sheikh wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Misgivings

Ahead of the Israeli cabinet vote, Netanyahu had faced criticism from within his right-wing coalition, some of whom thought the deal gave too much to the Palestinian militants.

Hardline Minister for National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir signalled he would vote against the agreement, saying it should include the release of Israeli soldiers also taken by Hamas.

But with dozens of families in Israel who are desperate to have their loved ones returned home, and the Israeli public gripped by the hostages’ fate, the government ultimately set aside any misgivings.

231119-tel-aviv-nov-19-2023-xinhua-israeli-prime-minister-benjamin-netanyahu-speaks-at-a-press-conference-in-tel-aviv-israel-on-nov-18-2023-currently-there-is-no-deal-reached-yet-on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Israel’s hawkish Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said before the crunch meeting that he had won assurances that the deal would not spell the end of the war.

“Immediately after we have exhausted this phase”, security operations would “continue in full force”, he said.

The government underscored that Israel “will continue the war in order to return home all of the hostages, complete the elimination of Hamas and ensure that there will be no new threat to the State of Israel from Gaza”.

‘Unbearable situation’

A US official said there was hope that the deal would lead to a “full pause” in deadly exchanges of fire along the Israel-Lebanon border with Hezbollah, which like Hamas is backed by Iran.

Large parts of Gaza have been flattened by thousands of air strikes, and the territory faces shortages of food, water and fuel.

Israel appeared to continue its offensive in northern Gaza today, with witnesses reporting dawn strikes on Kamal Adwan hospital and nearby homes. A casualty toll was not immediately available.

Medical workers treated bloodied, dust-covered survivors as other residents fled through debris-strewn streets to safety.

Israel says Hamas uses medical facilities to hide fighters and as bases for operations, making them legitimate military objectives while insisting it does everything possible to limit harm to civilians.

Includes reporting from Muiris O’Cearbhaill, Hayley Halpin and © AFP 2023