© Reuters. Hostages who were abducted by Hamas gunmen during the October 7 attack on Israel, wave as they are handed over by Hamas militants to members of the International Committee of the Red Cross, as part of a hostages-prisoners swap deal between Hamas and Israe
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell
GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Thirteen Israeli and four Thai nationals released from Hamas captivity arrived in Israel on Sunday and were set to be reunited with their families as part of a crucial hostage deal, which briefly risked falling apart due to a dispute over aid supplies.
The short-lived row over aid that threatened the temporary truce to free captives was overcome with the mediation of Qatar and Egypt but it underscored the fragility of the agreement, through which a total of 50 Israeli hostages are to be exchanged for 150 Palestinian prisoners over four days.
Television footage showed hostages on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing after leaving Gaza, as Hamas handed over the captives to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) late on Saturday. Of the 13 Israelis released, six were women and seven were children and teenagers, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office.
“The released hostages are on their way to hospitals in Israel, where they will reunite with their families,” the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said in a statement.
In exchange for the Israeli hostages, 39 Palestinian civilians including 33 minors were going to be released from Israeli prisons. Al Jazeera TV carried live footage of what it called a Red Cross bus carrying a large number of cheering Palestinian prisoners released from an Israeli prison on its way to Beitunia town, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
A Palestinian official familiar with the diplomacy said Hamas would continue with the four-day truce agreed with Israel, the first halt in fighting since Hamas fighters rampaged through southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages.
In response to that attack, Israel has vowed to destroy the Hamas militants who run Gaza, raining bombs and shells on the enclave and launching a ground offensive in the north. To date, some 14,800 people, roughly 40% of them children, have been killed, Palestinian health authorities said on Saturday.
Saturday’s swap comes after another 13 Israeli hostages including children and the elderly were freed by Hamas on Friday in return for 39 Palestinian women and youth released from Israeli prisons.
The deal ran the risk of derailment earlier after the armed wing of Hamas said it was delaying Saturday’s scheduled second round of hostage releases until Israel met all truce conditions, including committing to let aid trucks into northern Gaza.
Hamas spokesperson Osama Hamdan said only 65 of 340 aid trucks that had entered Gaza since Friday had reached northern Gaza, which was “less than half of what Israel agreed on.”
The IDF said inside the Gaza Strip, distribution of the aid was implemented by the United Nations and the international organizations.
The United Nations confirmed said 61 trucks of aid were delivered to northern Gaza on Saturday, the largest number since Oct. 7. They included food, water and emergency medical supplies.
Al-Qassam Brigades also said Israel had failed to respect the terms of the Palestinian prisoner releases and that the Palestinian detainees were not raised by seniority.
Qatari foreign ministry spokesman Majed Al-Ansari on Saturday said there been “a lot of discussion” on how and whom to prioritize for the releases and on the Palestinian side, a key criterion was the length of time spent in Israeli prisons.
“We are now hopeful that with the second or the third day of this pause, we would be able to hash out a lot of these details that made this day so difficult,” he told CNN.
Ensuring that the deal did not collapse took a day of high-stakes diplomacy mediated by Qatar and Egypt, a process in which U.S. President Joe Biden also participated by calling Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
Israel has said the ceasefire could be extended if Hamas continues to release hostages at a rate of at least 10 per day. A Palestinian source has said up to 100 hostages could go free.
‘HEART IS SPLIT’
While Saturday turned out to be a day of high-anxiety diplomacy for Qatari and Egyptian mediators, it meant hours of nail-biting waiting for the families of hostages. For some, their joy was overshadowed by the continued captivity of others.
“My heart is split because my son, Itay, is still in Hamas’ captivity in Gaza,” Mirit Regev, mother of Maya Regev who was among those released late on Saturday, said in a statement released by Hostage and Missing Families Forum, a platform set up to represent the families.
Among those released was nine-year-old Irish-Israeli hostage Emily Hand, who was initially thought to have been killed.
“This is a day of enormous joy and relief for Emily Hand and her family,” Ireland Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said in a statement. “For her family, these seven weeks have been a slow and cruel torture,” he said, adding that Ireland was redoubling efforts to work for a permanent ceasefire.
For Palestinians, however, joy at the release of prisoners from Israeli jails had a bitter tinge. Israeli police were seen raiding the home of Sawsan Bkeer on Friday shortly before her daughter Marah, 24, was released. Israeli police declined to comment.
“There is no real joy, even this little joy we feel as we wait,” said Sawsan Bkeer. “We are still afraid to feel happy,” she said.