Israel and Hamas have reached a deal for a four-day pause in fighting and the release of at least 50 women and children held hostage in Gaza, marking a major diplomatic breakthrough nearly seven weeks after the start of a conflict that has spiraled into a grave humanitarian crisis in the enclave.
The deal, as laid out by key negotiator Qatar in a statement, would see hostages held captive by Hamas released in exchange for a number of Palestinian women and children in Israeli jails. The truce, meanwhile, would also allow the entry of “a larger number of humanitarian convoys and relief aid,” the statement said.
The starting time of the pause in fighting would be announced within the next 24 hours, the statement added.
Qatar’s lead negotiator Minister of State Mohammed Al-Khulaifi said the agreement should prompt the international community to “seize this brief window of opportunity to generate further momentum for the diplomatic track.”
The announcement has been greeted with relief and heightened anticipation from the families of those taken hostage, who now await further news about their loved ones.
It has also been met with positive reaction on the international stage. Egyptian President Abdelfattah El-Sisi reiterated Egypt’s commitment to finding a “sustainable” solution for the Palestinian people, while Qatar’s prime minister said his country hopes the development will establish “a comprehensive and sustainable agreement that will put an end to the war and the bloodshed.”
Jordan’s foreign ministry said it hopes the foreign-mediated deal will be a “step” that leads to a “complete cessation of the war” in Gaza. In Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov welcomed the deal, saying that Moscow views it “positively” and describing it as “the first good news from Gaza in a very long time.”
Hamas is holding 239 hostages captive in Gaza, including foreign nationals from 26 countries, according to figures from the Israeli military. The mass abductions at gunpoint took place during October 7, when Hamas militants struck across the border in a coordinated and bloody surprise attack killing around 1,200 people – the largest such attack on Israel since the country’s founding in 1948.
Prior to the deal, only a handful of hostages had been released.
Israel responded to the attack by declaring war against Hamas and imposing a blockade on Gaza that cut off supplies of food, water, medicines and fuel, while launching a relentless air and ground assault. Some 12,700 people have been killed in Gaza since October 7, according to data from the Palestinian health ministry in the West Bank, which draws on information from Hamas-run health authorities.
The newly announced deal followed weeks of negotiations that included the United States and Egypt, and was approved by Israel’s cabinet in the early hours of Wednesday morning following a six-hour meeting an Israeli official described as “tense and emotional.”
Israel held out the potential for the truce to extend beyond the original four-day period, saying in a statement that an extra day would be added for each 10 additional hostages available for release. Some 150 Palestinian prisoners would be released over four days during the initial hostage release if terms are met, the government said.
The Israeli Cabinet Secretariat said that in the first phase, 150 security prisoners would be released in four stages over four days, with Palestinians being released subject to at least 10 Israeli abductees being handed over to Israeli security forces each day. Israel said there would be a lull in the fighting during those four days.
But it also made clear that Israel plans to resume its air and ground campaign “to complete the eradication of Hamas” once this round of hostage releases concludes.
“Until we are told to do so by the Israeli government, we will continue fighting Hamas and when such a deal will come into effect, we will respect that. But we will be very vigilant on the ground,” Conricus said.
The deal followed mounting pressure on the Israeli government from the families of the hostages, who have demanded answers and action from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It also comes amid growing international pressure for more humanitarian support for the people of Gaza.
Hostages’ families anxiously await the release
Even as the details of the release remained unclear, some family members of the hostages held by Hamas expressed relief – and anticipation as they waited to learn whether their loved ones would be included in the negotiated release.
Anat Moshe Shoshany, whose grandmother was kidnapped from kibbutz Nir Oz on the back of a moped, said hearing of the hostage deal gave her “so much hope.”
“I really do hope to see someone walking out of there alive,” Shoshany said. “We want a chance to see our loved ones back. This is all we want and I really hope this is just the first step in this mess.”
“We have spent the last seven weeks, seven weeks, worrying, wondering, praying, hoping,” she said.
The family hopes Abigail, who is the youngest American hostage held by Hamas, can come home by Friday, her fourth birthday.
“We need to see Abigail come out and then we will be able to believe it,” Naftali added.
US President Joe Biden welcomed the deal in a statement Tuesday night in Washington, saying it “should bring home additional American hostages.” He pledge he “will not stop until they are all released.”
Three Americans could be among the 50 women and children freed as part of the deal, senior US officials said. Ten Americans remain unaccounted for, including two women and a 3-year-old girl, according to a senior administration official. The official didn’t name the girl.
A US official also said there are “various locations where the hostages will be brought out,” but declined to provide further detail.
The IDF spokesperson Conricus said the list of hostages to be released in the deal are all Israelis – some with dual nationalities. He added that the Palestinian prisoners set to be released are “not serious offenders.”
Israel on Wednesday released a list of 300 prisoners that could be released, leaving open the possibility of a second phase of exchanges of prisoners for hostages after the initial four-day period.
The publication of the list starts a 24-hour period during which legal petitions against the release of Palestinian prisoners can be filed to Israel’s Supreme Court, after which point the process is expected to begin.
The total number of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails is approximately 8,300, according to Qadura Fares, the head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club, a non-governmental organization.
Of those 8,300, more than 3,000 are being held in what Israel calls “administrative detention,” which Amnesty International says can be extended indefinitely.
‘Potential’ for longer pause
The arrangement for a second phase of exchange built into the deal has the potential to create a longer humanitarian pause than just the four days originally stipulated, officials and statements from the US, Israel and Qatar have suggested.
“The hostages deal, as it is structured, includes a pause, a humanitarian pause over a number of days, four to five days at least. And there’s the potential with additional releases for that to be for that to be extended, but that will also be dependent upon Hamas releasing additional hostages,” according to a senior US official, who added this “incentivizes the release” of all hostages.
The pause will also allow for additional, much-needed humanitarian convoys and relief aid to enter the enclave.
Those would include fuel “designated for humanitarian needs,” according to Qatar, which did not provide further details on the volume of aid expected.
In its statement Wednesday, Hamas said the deal “involves the entry of hundreds of trucks carrying aid relief, medical supplies and fuel to all parts of Gaza.”
Israel has been highly reluctant to allow fuel into Gaza since October 7, citing concerns Hamas will use it to power its operations, and only last week agreed to allow minimal deliveries to power sewage facilities and water supply systems.
Humanitarian groups have for weeks called for fuel to be allowed into Gaza, arguing it is critical for cooking food and maintaining operations at hospitals, which have struggled to keep patients, including neonatal babies alive, amid power outages, supply shortages and bombardment.
Governments across the world and international organizations have also been ramping up pressure for increased aid deliveries to the struggling enclave.
This is a developing story and will be updated.