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Guns silenced for hostage release

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Picture: Khaled Omar / Xinhua / November 22, 2023 – People conduct rescue work among the rubble of buildings destroyed in Israeli airstrikes in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah.

By AFP, Reuters and Sputnik

After 48 days of gunfire and bombardment that claimed thousands of lives, a four-day truce in the Israel-Hamas war began yesterday with hostages due to be released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

A Palestinian official confirmed yesterday that Israel would release 39 Palestinian prisoners, among them 24 women and 15 teenage males, in the West Bank in exchange for 13 hostages due to be freed from the Gaza Strip by Hamas.

The inmates, all of them from the occupied West Bank or Jerusalem, would be handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross at Israel’s Ofer military jail, said Qadura Fares, Palestinian commissioner for prisoners.

That would coincide with the planned hand-over at the Gaza-Egypt border of 13 women and children who were among some 240 people taken hostage by Hamas militants during their October 7 attacks in southern Israel. Egypt is preparing to receive a number of hostages, Egypt’s State Information Service (SIS) said in a statement Yesterday.

“Egypt’s mediation efforts have yielded the release of 12 Thai hostages and 13 Israelis, including women and children, held by Hamas,” the government media office said four female hostages have already been released and Israeli forces rescued one female soldier. Two other captives, including a woman soldier, were found dead by Israeli troops in Gaza.

The prisoner release was part of an Israeli-Hamas ceasefire that began at 7am yesterday and appeared to be holding shakily with no major reports of bombings, artillery strikes or rocket attacks, although both sides were accused of violations.

The truce triggered a mass movement of thousands of Gazans who had sought refuge in schools and hospitals from relentless Israeli bombardment. “I’m going home,” Omar Jibrin, 16, told AFP after he emerged from a hospital in the south of the Gaza Strip where he and eight family members had sought refuge.

In Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza where many Palestinians fled, a cacophony of car horns and ambulance sirens has replaced the sound of war.

For Khaled al-Halabi, the truce is “a chance to breathe” after nearly seven weeks of war that began when Hamas broke through Gaza’s militarised border killing about 1,200 people and seizing about 240 Israeli and foreign hostages, according to Israeli officials.

Israel’s retaliatory air, artillery and naval strikes alongside a ground offensive have killed about 15,000 people, the Hamas government in Gaza said.

“I hope the truce will take effect throughout the Gaza Strip so I can see my destroyed house and what’s left of it,” said Halabi, who took refuge in Rafah but is from Gaza City in the north, much of which has been reduced to rubble.

Gazans like Halabi have struggled to survive with shortages of food, water and fuel. Trucks carrying more aid, including fuel, began moving into Gaza from the Rafah crossing with Egypt shortly after the truce began.

The agreement came after weeks of talks involving Israel, Palestinian militant groups, Qatar, Egypt and the US. Over the four days, at least 50 hostages are expected to be freed, leaving an estimated 190 in the hands of Palestinian militants. In exchange, 150 Palestinian prisoners are expected to be released.

The agreement entailed a “complete ceasefire with no attacks from the air or the ground” and the skies clear of drones to “allow for the hostage release to happen in a safe environment”, Qatari foreign ministry spokesperson Majed Al Ansari said.

According to the UN, 1.7 million of Gaza’s 2.4 million people are estimated to have been displaced by the fighting. Now, thousands of them are trying to get home.

In Khan Yunis, people loaded belongings onto carts, strapped them to car roofs, or slung bags over their shoulders, crowding streets to return to their homes in the city’s east after leaving their war shelters.

Israeli warplanes over southern Gaza dropped leaflets warning people not to head back to the north. “The war is not over yet,” the leaflets read. “Returning to the north is forbidden and very dangerous!!!”

About 15 minutes after the truce began, sirens warning of incoming rockets sounded in several communities along Israel’s border with Gaza, the Israeli military said, without providing further details.

In the morning, a few apparent gunshots could be heard and dark plumes of smoke rose periodically over northern Gaza, an AFPTV livecam showed, but the truce appeared to be holding.

Further north, on the Lebanon-Israel border, calm also returned after regular deadly exchanges of fire, primarily between the Israeli army and Hezbollah. The Lebanese movement, like Hamas, is backed by Iran.

Israeli soldiers are being carefully prepared to receive potentially deeply traumatised women and child hostages.

Even the first words the soldier-escorts will say have been carefully scripted. They have also been encouraged to carry the child’s favourite food.

An Egyptian security source told AFP that Israeli security officials, International Red Cross-Red Crescent staff and an Egyptian team would deploy to Rafah, on the Egypt-Gaza border, to receive the hostages, who would then be flown to Israel.

AFP has confirmed the identities of 210 of the roughly 240 captives. At least 35 of those taken hostage were children, with 18 of them aged 10 or under at the time of the Hamas attack.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it had received “a first list of names” of those due to be released and been in contact with the families. It did not specify who was on the list.

Asked if he expected kidnapped American toddler Abigail Mor Idan to be in the first release, US President Joe Biden said: “I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”

Governments across the world welcomed the agreement, with some expressing hope that it would lead to a lasting end to the war. Israeli officials, however, say the truce will be only temporary, reported Sputnik.

Israel will resume fighting in the Gaza Strip after the truce reached with Hamas ends, Israel Defence Forces spokesperson Daniel Hagari said yesterday.

“This truce and period of cessation of hostilities is temporary, the war will not end, the war will be resumed … The Israeli army will destroy Hamas,” Hagari told Sky News Arabia. – Reporting by AFP, Reuters and Sputnik