Israel-Hamas hostage deal: Freeing captives between devastating Gaza

As the war against Hamas entered its seventh week at the end of November, the first major breakthrough occurred in the efforts to release the approximately 240 hostages who were seized on October 7 when 3,000 heavily armed terrorists stormed across the Gaza border, entering 22 Israeli communities and killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians.

After weeks of arduous negotiations, brokered by Qatar, the US and Egypt, a four-day ceasefire went into effect on November 24, during which Hamas was set to release 50 Israeli captives – children, mothers, and elderly women – in return for 150 Palestinian security prisoners – women and minors – mostly residents of the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Many of the Palestinian detainees had been convicted of terrorist attacks against Israelis but none had been sentenced for murder.

Israel also agreed to significantly increase the amount of humanitarian aid entering Gaza via the Rafah crossing with Egypt, along with fuel – a significant concession, as Hamas claimed it was in desperate need of fuel for electricity and ventilation for its vast underground tunnel network, dubbed the Gaza metro.

On the first day of the four-day ceasefire, there was a pleasant surprise when 10 Thai nationals and a Filipino, also abducted from Israel on October 7, were released from Hamas captivity – a move not connected to the deal brokered between Israel and Hamas. The following day, four more Thai captives were set free.

The agreement to release 50 Israeli hostages over a four-day period brought an end to the agony for some of the families who had been living in limbo since October 7, unaware if their loved ones were still alive, as Hamas had refused any visits by Red Cross representatives – an absolute minimum humanitarian requirement. Earlier in the war, Hamas had released four hostages – an American citizen and her daughter, and two elderly women. And in a daring raid, Israeli forces rescued a female soldier hostage, Pvt. Ori Megidish, on October 30.

Private Ori Megidish has been reunited with her family, October 30, 2023. (credit: SHIN BET)

“We have now completed the return of the first of our hostages – children, their mothers, and other women. Each and every one of them is an entire world,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “But I emphasize to you – the families, and to you, the citizens of Israel: We are committed to the return of all our hostages.”

The handover of Israeli hostages from Hamas

The released hostages were handed over to representatives of the Red Cross and driven to Egypt’s Rafah crossing, and from there transferred to Israeli hospitals.

The families of the hostages met them, for the first time, in an isolated compound in one of the designated hospitals. In the first 24 hours after their release, professionals and family members informed the hostages about their relatives and fellow community members who had been murdered or were also kidnapped. Some have lost one or both parents, children and/or siblings.

Among those released in the second installment was Emily Hand, seized from Kibbutz Be’eri, who turned nine in Hamas captivity. Her Irish-born father, Tom, became one of the symbols of the anguish of the parents when he told CNN, in an emotional interview, that he was happy when he was initially told that Emily had been killed. Death, he maintained, was a better option than being held by Hamas in captivity. He was then informed by the Israeli authorities that Emily was in fact among the hostages. After 50 days in Gaza, she was released.

“Emily came back to us! We can’t find the words to describe our emotions after 50 challenging and complicated days,” the family said in a statement. ”We are happy to hug Emily again, but at the same time we remember Raya Rotem and all the hostages who have yet to come back.”

Raya is the mother of 13-year-old Hila Rotem Shoshani, Emily’s friend, at whose home she was sleeping at a pajama party on the morning of October 7.

Many of those released will not be able to return to the homes they knew, as most residents of Gaza periphery communities have relocated to safer areas, such as hotels in Eilat or the Dead Sea area. The residents of Kibbutz Be’eri, where more than 100 people were killed and two dozen taken hostage, decided that in a few months members will relocate to Kibbutz Hatzerim, close to Beersheba, for several years until the destroyed buildings in Be’eri are rebuilt.

There were no wild celebrations by any of the families or friends of those fortunate enough to have been set free, despite the obvious relief. Israel is still a grieving nation, shell shocked from the trauma of October 7, and in everyone’s mind are the hostages who remain in Gaza.

Meanwhile, Gaza residents used the ceasefire to stock up on essentials or visit friends, without fear of an Israeli airstrike for the first time in 50 days. Others took the opportunity to search for relatives buried under the rubble or to bury loved ones.

Israeli troops prevented residents who had fled to the south of the Gaza Strip from returning north. Israel dropped leaflets in the southern Gaza Strip, saying “The humanitarian pause is temporary, and the northern region of Gaza is a war zone.”

According to the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry, more than 14,500 people have been killed in the fighting in Gaza.

The only ministers to vote against the hostage release deal were the three ministers from Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party. “Hamas’s agreement to the deal indicates that the IDF is carrying out an effective strike,” said a statement by the party. “It is necessary to continue striking the enemy and bring it to a deal under conditions dictated by Israel and not under the very problematic conditions that endanger IDF forces.”

Ministers from the Religious Zionist Party, led by Bezalel Smotrich, had also threatened to vote against the deal but changed their mind following assurances from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant that the IDF would resume the fighting with full force once the ceasefire was over.

Hamas is likely to use the ceasefire to re-establish chains of command, move terrorists to more advantageous positions, and restock supplies. Critically, it will also be able to move hostages to new locations.

The danger in the ceasefire from Israel’s point of view is inherent. Hamas hopes the truce will be a turning point in the conflict, and that the IDF will lose momentum and scale back its military advance via a series of limited ceasefires and restrictive conditions until a permanent ceasefire is imposed.

Simultaneously, pressure from the international community will mount for an end to the fighting, and diplomatic efforts to impose some kind of political arrangement will gain momentum, allowing Hamas to survive, with its military leadership and most of its gunmen unscathed in the southern Gaza Strip and its political leadership intact abroad.

The start of the four-day truce saw the IDF in control of almost the entire area of the northern Gaza Strip, including Gaza City. Most neighborhoods, including former Hamas strongholds, had been cleansed of terrorists but some areas, such as the neighborhood of Sejaiya, had still not been dealt with. The devastation was massive, on a scale way beyond anything seen in previous fighting in the Gaza Strip.

 The apocalyptic scenes raised questions over whether the one million or so residents who fled to southern Gaza to escape the worst of the fighting will be able to return.

The daily scenes of thousands of Palestinians fleeing the war zone via the humanitarian corridors secured by the IDF, some waving white flags, was reminiscent of the 1948 War of Independence, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes. That event marked the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem and is referred to in Arabic as the Nakba, or “catastrophe.”

The comparison was noted by Security Cabinet member and Likud MK Avi Dichter. “We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba,” he said. “From an operational point of view, there is no way to wage a war – as the IDF seeks to do in Gaza – with masses [of people] between the tanks and the soldiers.”

Both the political and military echelon expressed determination to pursue the fighting after the truce.

“We’ll return immediately to attacking and invading Gaza once the ceasefire is over,” IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi told troops.

“This was a ceasefire which would not have happened without the pressure that the IDF applied” to Hamas, he said.

Halevi maintained that continued military action will succeed in bringing back additional hostages. The IDF chief added that the military was using the “time off” to learn from its first six weeks of fighting Hamas how to improve in the next round of combat.

In the Israeli army’s sights is Khan Yunis, the major Hamas stronghold in the southern Gaza Strip, where senior Hamas leaders and many terrorists are believed to have fled to. One senior IDF officer was quoted as saying “There is no way they will stop us from reaching Khan Yunis; otherwise, we will not defeat Hamas.”  ■

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