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Published November 26, 2023

Fragile Gaza truce is back on track as Egypt says it has received lists for a third exchange

Israel Hamas truce - AP

By Wafaa Shurafa And Samy Magdy in Deir el-Balah, The Associated Press

The fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas appeared to be back on track Sunday after the release of a second group of militant-held hostages and Palestinians from Israeli prisons, and Egypt said it had received new lists for an expected third release.

In a separate development, Hamas announced that one of its top commanders had been killed, without saying when or how. Israel's military confirmed it.

The second exchange was delayed for hours Saturday after Hamas accused Israel of violating the agreement, which has brought the first significant pause in seven weeks of war marked by the deadliest Israeli-Palestinian violence in decades and vast destruction and displacement across the Gaza Strip. Hamas later released 13 Israelis and four Thais, while Israel freed 39 Palestinian prisoners.

Diaa Rashwan, chair of the Egyptian State Information Services, said Egypt had received a list of 13 hostages that Hamas will release Sunday, and another list of 39 Palestinians that Israel is expected to free.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told NBC’s “Meet the Press" that the U.S. had “reason to believe” that an American hostage would be released Sunday and said there were hopes it would be Abigail Edan, the 4-year-old girl who lost her parents in the Hamas attack on Oct. 7. Sullivan also said that U.S. President Joe Biden would speak with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later Sunday.

Separately, Hamas said it had released one of the Russian hostages it was holding, “in response to the efforts of Russian President Vladimir Putin” and as a show of appreciation for Moscow’s position on the war. Israeli army radio had reported that it was an Israeli-Russian dual national.

Hamas and other militant groups seized around 240 people during the rampage across southern Israel that ignited the war. Forty-four have been released, one was freed by Israeli forces and two were found dead inside Gaza.

Pressure from hostages' families has sharpened the dilemma facing Israel's leaders, who seek to eliminate Hamas as a military and governing power while returning all the captives.

The war has claimed the lives of more than 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians killed by Hamas in the initial attack. More than 13,300 Palestinians have been killed, roughly two thirds of them women and minors, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza.

The four-day cease-fire, which began Friday, was brokered by Qatar and Egypt and the United States. Hamas will release at least 50 Israeli hostages, and Israel will free 150 Palestinian prisoners. All are women and minors.

Israel has said the truce can be extended by an extra day for every additional 10 hostages freed, but has vowed to quickly resume its offensive once it ends. Sullivan said the U.S. is working “with all sides on the possibility that this deal gets extended to additional hostages beyond the initial 50.”

HAMAS COMMANDER KILLED

Hamas announced the death of Ahmed al-Ghandour, who was in charge of northern Gaza and a member of its top military council. He is the highest-ranking militant known to have been killed in the fighting.

Al-Ghandour, believed to have been around 56 years old, had survived at least three Israeli attempts on his life and was involved in a cross-border attack in 2006 in which Palestinian militants captured an Israeli soldier, according to the Counter Extremism Project, an advocacy group based in Washington.

Hamas said that he was killed along with three other senior militants, including Ayman Siam, who Israel says was in charge of Hamas’ rocket-firing unit. The Israeli military mentioned both men in a Nov. 16 statement, saying it had targeted an underground complex where Hamas leaders were hiding.

The Israeli military claims to have killed thousands of militants, without providing evidence, including several mid-ranking commanders it has identified by name.

AID AND RESPITE IN GAZA

The pause has given some respite to Gaza's 2.3 million people, still reeling from relentless Israeli bombardment that has driven three-quarters of the population from their homes and levelled residential areas. Rocket fire from Gaza militants into Israel also went silent.

War-weary Palestinians in northern Gaza, where the offensive has focused, returned to the streets. Entire city blocks in and around Gaza City have been gutted by airstrikes that hollowed out buildings and left drifts of rubble.

In southern Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of people from the north have sought refuge, residents lined up outside gas stations, hoping to stock up on fuel. Palestinians who have tried to return to the north to see if their homes are intact have been turned back by Israeli troops.

“Many are desperate to return to their homes, but they open fire on anyone approaching from the south,” said Rami Hazarein, who fled from Gaza City last month.

The Israeli military has ordered Palestinians not to return to the north or approach within a kilometre (around a half-mile) of the border fence. The Palestinian Red Crescent rescue service said that Israeli forces opened fire Sunday on two farmers in central Gaza, killing one and wounding the other. It didn't provide further details. An Israeli military spokesperson said they weren't aware of the incident.

The United Nations said the truce has made it possible to scale up the delivery of food, water, and medicine to the largest volume since the start of the war, though it still hasn't reached prewar levels. It was able to deliver fuel for the first time since the war began, and to reach areas in the north for the first time in a month.

HOSTAGES FOR PRISONERS

The Israeli hostages freed on Saturday included seven children and six women, ranging in age from 3 to 67. Most were from Kibbutz Be’eri, a community that Hamas militants ravaged during their Oct. 7 attack.

The freed hostages have mostly stayed out of the public eye. Hospitals said their physical condition has been good, aside from one who was shot during the attack and required surgery. Little is publicly known about the conditions of their captivity.

Eyal Nouri, the nephew of Adina Moshe, 72, who was freed on Friday, said his aunt “had to adjust to the sunlight” because she had been in complete darkness for weeks.

The released Palestinians included at least two women who had been given long sentences after being convicted by Israeli courts of violent attacks. Many Palestinians view prisoners held by Israel, including those implicated in attacks, as heroes resisting occupation, and have celebrated their release.

The war in Gaza has been accompanied by a surge in violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Palestinian health authorities said Sunday that five Palestinians were killed in an Israeli military raid in the northern West Bank city of Jenin that began the day before.

The Israeli army has conducted frequent military raids and arrested hundreds of Palestinians since the start of the war, mostly people it suspects of being Hamas members.

Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem and Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel contributed to this report.

Banner image via The Associated Press - A Red Cross vehicle carrying Israeli hostages drives by at the Gaza Strip crossing into Egypt in Rafah on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023.

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