- Add details in paragraphs 2, 4, 13, 26.
- LATEST DEVELOPMENTS:
- Thirteen Israeli hostages and four Thais return to Israel
- Egypt and Qatar help defuse aid dispute that threatened deal
- Television shows a bus transporting liberated Palestinians in the West Bank
GAZA/JERUSALEM, Nov 26 (Reuters) – Thirteen Israelis and four Thais arrived in Israel on Sunday in the second release of Hamas hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, in a deal that was briefly jeopardized by a dispute over the handover of help Gaza.
Although overcome by the mediation of Egypt and Qatar, the dispute that threatened the truce to free the captives underlined the fragility of the pact to exchange 50 hostages held by the Palestinian militant group for 150 prisoners in Israeli jails.
Television images 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 on Saturday night.
Six of the 13 released Israelis were women and seven were teenagers or children. The youngest was Yahel Shoham, three years old, released with her mother and her brother, although her father remains hostage.
“The freed hostages are on their way to hospitals in Israel, where they will be reunited with their families,” the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said in a statement.
Israel freed 39 Palestinians – six women and 33 minors – from two prisons, the Palestinian news agency WAFA said.
Some of the Palestinians arrived at the square in the Al-Bireh municipality in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where thousands of citizens were waiting for them, a Reuters witness said.
A Palestinian official familiar with the diplomatic moves said Hamas would continue the truce, the first break 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 rule Gaza, dropping bombs and shells on the enclave and launching a ground offensive in the north. Some 14,800 people, about 40% of them children, have died, Palestinian health authorities said Saturday.
Saturday’s exchange follows the initial release the previous day of 13 Israeli hostages, including children and the elderly, by Hamas in exchange for the release of 39 Palestinian women and teenagers from Israeli prisons.
On Friday, Hamas also released a Filipino citizen and 10 Thai farm workers.
The four Thais freed on Saturday “want to take a shower and contact their families,” Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said on social media platform X, adding that they were all safe and had few ill effects.
Eighteen Thais remain captive, Thailand’s Foreign Ministry said Sunday, in a tally that reflects two previously unknown kidnappings.
“I’m so happy, I’m so glad, I can’t describe my feeling at all,” Thongkoon Onkaew told Reuters by phone, following news of the release of her son Natthaporn, 26, the family’s sole breadwinner.
HOW TO PRIORITIZE LAUNCHES
The deal risked being derailed when Hamas’s armed wing said on Saturday it was delaying releases until Israel met all conditions of the truce, including a commitment to allow aid trucks into northern Gaza.
Saving the deal required a day of high-stakes diplomacy brokered by Qatar and Egypt, a process joined by US President Joe Biden, calling on Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan said that only 65 of the 340 aid trucks that had entered Gaza since Friday had reached northern Gaza, or “less than half of what Israel agreed to.”
The Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, also said that Israel had not respected terms for the release of Palestinian prisoners that took into account their length of detention.
The IDF said the United Nations and international organizations distribute aid within the Gaza Strip. The UN said 61 trucks delivered aid to northern Gaza on Saturday, the most since the war began seven weeks ago. They included food, water and emergency medical supplies.
Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed Al-Ansari said there had been “a lot of discussion” about how and who to prioritize release and that a key criterion for the Palestinian side was the length of time spent in Israeli prisons.
“We’re now hopeful that with the second or third day of this pause, we’ll be able to clear up a lot of these details,” he told CNN.
Israel has said the ceasefire could be extended if Hamas continues to release at least 10 hostages a day. A Palestinian source has said that up to 100 hostages could be freed.
‘THE HEART IS DIVIDED’
Saturday also saw hours of agonizing waiting for the hostages’ families, some of whose joy was tempered by the continued captivity of others.
“My heart is divided because my son, Itay, is still held captive by Hamas in Gaza,” Mirit Regev, the mother of Maya Regev, who was freed Saturday night, said in a statement from the Missing Families and Hostages Forum that represents families.
The wait for the release of the Shohams, who left a father hostage in Gaza, had been agonizing, said Aviv Havron, a relative. “But what’s that compared to the 50 days they spent as hostages?” news site Ynet quoted him as saying.
Also freed was nine-year-old Irish-Israeli hostage Emily Hand, initially feared dead, but who spent her ninth birthday in captivity before being released along with 12-year-old Hila Rotem, whose mother remains in captivity.
“We are delighted to hug Emily again, but at the same time we remember Raya Rotem and all the hostages who have not yet returned,” Hand’s family said in a statement.
The Palestinians’ joy at liberation was tinged with bitterness.
“I feel like I’m in a dream, but I hope the war in Gaza ends as soon as possible,” one of them, Shorouk Dwayyat, who had served half of his 16-year term, told Al Jazeera TV.
Reporting by Emily Rose, Bassam Masoud, James Mackenzie, Maayan Lubell, Emma Farge, Aidan Lewis, Adam Makary, Nidal al-Mugrabi and Moaz Abd-Alaziz; Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Sybille de La Hamaide and Jeff Mason in Nantucket, Massachusetts; Written by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Leslie Adler, Clarence Fernández and William Mallard
Our standards: the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.