Forty-six days into the Gaza war, Israel and Hamas have agreed to an exchange of hostages held in the Strip since 7 October with Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The deal includes a ceasefire of at least four days – but no guarantee of an end to the war.
Late on Tuesday night, 21 November, the Israeli cabinet voted in favour of a deal that will bring at least 50 hostages, women and children, back home. The release will occur over four days, when there will be a pause in fighting. For every additional ten hostages released, the pause will be extended by one day.
The deal rests on the ceasefire not being violated and depends on Hamas locating the abductees. Hamas says it has the majority of the roughly 240 people kidnapped last month, about 40 of whom are children, but some are being held by other groups, including Islamic Jihad.
Not all the women and children being held in Gaza are being released, “and we don’t know the fate of the elderly and wounded”, the veteran Israeli negotiator Gershon Baskin told me. The biggest risk to the deal is that the ceasefire could be violated.
Israel will release some 150 Palestinian prisoners not convicted of murder, and between 300-400 trucks of humanitarian aid per day, along with more fuel trucks, will be allowed into the Strip. Israeli media has reported that it includes allowing the Red Cross to visit the remaining hostages, and for medicine to be distributed to them. The deal, mediated by Qatar, appears to have been helped along by pressure from the US president, Joe Biden.
With the exchange backed by the heads of the Israeli army, the Shin Bet internal security services, and the Mossad intelligence agency, opposition in Israel’s cabinet came from the extreme right – though only the three ministers of Otzma Yehudit, the Jewish Power party, voted against it. The party said it opposed the deal because it could increase international pressure on Israel to stop the war after the ceasefire ends.
The agreement will come as a huge relief to families of some of the hostages, whose agonising wait has been all the worse amid myriad reports of a potential deal. However it will be bittersweet for many: families of hostages will only get some members of their families returned under the deal, with the others remaining in Gaza. The 240 hostages include foreign nationals as well as Israelis. Foreign nationals are not meant to be part of the deal, though there are reports that three American nationals could be included. A 35-year-old Thai migrant worker who was nine months pregnant when kidnapped gave birth in captivity last week.
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Five hostages have already been released, four in separate deals, and one, a soldier, in an IDF operation. On Tuesday, Islamic Jihad announced that one of the hostages it was holding, Hannah Katzir, had died. The 76-year-old was unwell and needed medication. Islamic Jihad said on Telegram that it had been willing to release her on humanitarian grounds, but that Israel refused.
The process will probably begin on Thursday afternoon. Following cabinet approval, there is a 24-hour period in which the names of the prisoners slated for release will be published online by the government and Israelis can submit appeals to the High Court. But the court would likely “reject any objection on the basis that it has no legal jurisdiction in the decision”, said Baskin, as this is a political decision.
Six weeks of fighting have devastated Gaza’s infrastructure and led to an estimated death toll of more than 12,000, including many children. With little food, fuel, water and sanitation, Palestinians, many of whom are displaced inside the Strip by the war, are living through a major humanitarian crisis. Palestinians were told by Israel to evacuate south for their safety, meaning Israel’s military has effectively cut the Strip in two. The IDF is on the ground in Gaza yet is carrying out air strikes in the south. In November, the Israeli army said it had surrounded Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar.
The global pressure on Israel to stop its bombardment of the Strip has been mounting, but in an official statement, the Benjamin Netanyahu government has said it would “continue the war” after the ceasefire, to secure the release of hostages and “complete the elimination of Hamas”.
For Hamas, its continued existence can be chalked up as victory, however weakened it is. But success for Israel in this war is far harder to achieve. The ceasefire will enable Hamas to regroup, and the split in the hostage release is challenging for the families, for the Israeli public, and for the government.
This development could increase global pressure on Israel for a more permanent ceasefire. In the coming days, anxious families will be praying that the ceasefire holds and that the hostages will be coming back alive, as promised by Hamas.
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