(AFP) – Hamas fighters were set to release a second group of hostages Saturday in exchange for Palestinian prisoners in Israel, officials said, as a truce largely held in the devastated Gaza Strip after seven weeks of war that killed thousands of people.
Israeli prison authorities said 42 Palestinian inmates — both male and female — would be freed under the agreement which mandates exchanges at a ratio of three to one.
An Israeli official source said 14 hostages would be handed over.
The transfers will follow an initial exchange that occurred Friday, the first day of a four-day truce that largely silenced the guns on both sides.
Hamas released 24 hostages in the initial exchange, according to Qatar and an official Israeli list. They included 13 Israelis — all of whom were women and children.
Ten Thais and one Filipino were also unexpectedly freed.
Hamas fighters snatched around 240 captives when they broke through Gaza‘s militarised border with Israel on October 7, killing about 1,200 Israelis and foreigners, according to Israeli authorities.
In response to the deadliest attack in its history, Israel launched an air, artillery and naval bombardment alongside a ground offensive to destroy Hamas, killing nearly 15,000 people, according to the Hamas government in Gaza.
– Excitement at releases –
A video released by Hamas showed masked militants with rifles, wearing military fatigues and the green headband of the Islamist movement’s armed wing, handing hostages over to the Red Cross.
Israel in turn freed 39 Palestinian women and children from its prisons.
In a Tel Aviv suburb, people applauded and held up Israeli flags as helicopters flew in the freed captives.
At Israel‘s Wolfson Medical Center, which received five elderly women hostages, Dr Shoshi Goldner said “there was no one in the room that could hold his feelings and stop crying”.
“You are finally home in a safe place,” Goldner said.
“Today we are excited about the returnees, but I want us not to forget all those who have not yet returned,” Yael Adar, daughter-in-law of former hostage Yaffa Adar, 85, told Israel‘s Ynet news website.
About 215 captives remain in Gaza, though in many cases it is unknown if they are dead or alive, Israeli army spokesman Doron Spielman said.
Hamas is expected to free a total of 50 hostages during the truce in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners, under an agreement brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the United States.
– ‘Finally home’ –
“It’s only a start, but so far it’s gone well,” US President Joe Biden told reporters, adding “the chances are real” for extending the truce.
But Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said on Saturday: “We all want this truce to turn into a permanent ceasefire and a complete end to this aggression.”
Israel‘s Kibbutz Nir Oz community issued a statement welcoming the release of the Filipino hostage Gelienor (Jimmy) Pacheco, 33. It said he was caregiver to Amitai Ben Zvi, murdered in the October 7 attacks.
Roongarun Wichanguen, sister of 33-year-old Thai hostage Vetoon Phoome, expressed joy and disbelief that he is coming home. She thought he had been killed by Hamas.
On a video call, “His face was very happy, and he seemed okay,” she said, adding he told her he “was taken care of very well. It looks like he just stayed in a house, not the tunnel.”
– Palestinians celebrate –
In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, fireworks exploded and crowds filled the street where they hoisted aloft young men who had been freed from prison. Wearing identical grey jumpers, the freed prisoners waved Palestinian and Hamas flags.
“I spent the end of my childhood and my adolescence in prison, far from my parents and their hugs,” Marah Bakir, 24, a released female prisoner, told AFP after returning to her home in annexed east Jerusalem.
Bakir served eight years for attempting to kill an Israeli border guard.
Earlier in the evening, Israeli security forces fired tear gas to disperse crowds as the prisoners were released. The Palestinian Red Crescent said Israeli security forces shot and wounded three people.
In Israel, authorities asked the media to let the newly-freed hostages reunite with loved ones in privacy.
Among those released was Hannah Katzir, 76, who according to her family uses a walking frame and needs medication.
Mothers and their children were also freed, including Doron Katz-Asher, 34, and her two young daughters.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to bring all the Hamas hostages home.
“This is one of the goals of the war,” he said.
– More aid –
The pause in fighting in Gaza opened the way for more aid to Gazans struggling to survive with shortages of water and other essentials. Israel had placed Gaza under near-total siege.
Trucks carrying supplies including fuel, food and medicine, began moving into Gaza through the Rafah crossing from Egypt on Friday, and more entered on Saturday.
In Rafah, many waited to fill gas canisters for cooking. “All the people are hoping and ready for it to make their lives easier,” said one resident, Ezzeddine Abu Omeira.
The UN estimates that 1.7 million of Gaza‘s 2.4 million people have been displaced by the fighting.
Since the truce, thousands have been returning to what is left of their homes.
“We are civilians,” said Mahmud Masood, standing in front of flattened buildings in Jabalia, northern Gaza. “Why have they destroyed our houses?”
Israel‘s army said early Saturday that it downed a surface-to-air missile launched from Lebanon towards an Israeli drone. In response, the army said Israeli war planes also struck infrastructure of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group allied with Hamas, both of which are backed by Iran.
But after weeks of intensifying cross-border fire, Hezbollah has not claimed any attacks on Israel since the truce came into effect.
An Israeli-owned ship suffered minor damage in a suspected attack by an Iranian drone in the Indian Ocean on Friday, a US defence official said on Saturday.
© Agence France-Presse