By Wafaa Shurafa And Samy Magdy in Jerusalem – The Associated Press
The fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas was back on track Sunday as the militants freed 17 more hostages, including 14 Israelis and the first American, in a third set of releases under a four-day truce.
Red Cross representatives transferred the hostages out of Gaza. Some were handed over directly to Israel, while others left through Egypt. Israel’s army said one was airlifted directly to a hospital.
The Israeli hostages ranged in age from 4 to 84 and included Abigail Edan, a 4-year-old girl whose parents were killed in the Hamas attack that started the war on Oct. 7. The U.S. identified her as the first American hostage freed; White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told NBC’s “Meet the Press” the U.S. had reason to believe an American hostage would be released and said there were hopes it would be her.
In all, nine children ages 17 and younger were on the list, according to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office. 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.
Israel was to free 39 Palestinian prisoners later Sunday as part of the deal. A fourth exchange is expected on Monday — the last day of the cease-fire during which a total of 50 hostages and 150 Palestinian prisoners are to be freed. All are women and minors.
International mediators led by the U.S. and Qatar are trying to extend the cease-fire.
Ahead of the latest release, Netanyahu visited the Gaza Strip, where he spoke with troops. “We are making every effort to return our hostages, and at the end of the day we will return every one,” he said, adding that “we are continuing until the end, until victory. Nothing will stop us.” It was not immediately clear where he went inside Gaza.
A BREAK IN THE FIGHTING
The cease-fire agreement 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 and other militant groups seized around 240 people during the rampage across southern Israel that ignited the war. Fifty-eight 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 cease-fire, which began Friday, was brokered by Qatar and Egypt and the United States. 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. Israel’s military confirmed the death.
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 leveled 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 kilometer (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 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 toll in the West Bank is now 239 since the war began.
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.
Banner image: A Red Cross vehicle carrying Israeli hostages drives by at the Gaza Strip crossing into Egypt in Rafah on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)
Samy Magdy reported from Cairo. Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem, and Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel, contributed to this report.