Israel-Hamas Cease-Fire Starts Thursday, Followed by Release of Hostages and Prisoners

A four-day cease-fire between Israel and Hamas — the first extended break in almost seven weeks of war — will begin on Thursday morning, officials on both sides said, but a top Israeli official said the exchange of prisoners for hostages will not begin before Friday.

The cease-fire was expected to begin at 10 a.m. local time, according to Moussa Abu Marzouk, a Hamas official who was interviewed by Al Jazeera, and an Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters.

But late on Wednesday, Tzachi Hanegbi, the national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, quashed widespread speculation that Thursday would also bring the first release of hostages seized by Hamas.

Negotiations “on the release of our hostages are advancing and continuing constantly,” Mr. Hanegbi said in a statement. “The start of the release will take place according to the original agreement between the two sides, and not before Friday.”

The two sides announced Wednesday morning — Tuesday evening in the United States — that they had agreed to the exchange and a pause in fighting, but spent much of the day hammering out tricky details about timing and methods. In an atmosphere of deep mutual mistrust, with a history of collapsed truces and without an intermediary attempting to keep peace on the ground, Palestinians and Israelis alike worried that the deal might yet fall through.

The deal calls for the release of at least 150 Palestinian women and teenagers jailed by Israel in exchange for at least 50 women and minors taken hostage during the Hamas assault in Israel on Oct. 7. Israel said its warplanes would not fly over southern Gaza for the duration of the cease-fire, and would not fly over the northern part of the territory for six hours each day.

But as if to highlight that there was no lull in the war yet, the Israeli military said on Wednesday that it “continued to fight in the Gaza Strip,” while Hamas said it had agreed to a truce, but “our hands will remain on the trigger.”

Airstrikes continued in northern Gaza on Wednesday.Credit…John Macdougall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity said hostages turned over by Hamas would be taken to hospitals, the seriously injured by helicopter. Those under 12 will be met at the border by their families, the official said, while older ones will meet their families at hospitals, where they will be debriefed by security services.

The Israeli government has said that the hostages would be freed in four groups during the truce, each with at least 10 people. Israeli news media reported that the country’s spy service, Mossad, had the names of those set to be released in the first group, but would not notify their families until they had been recovered.

The Palestinians to be released from Israeli prisons, most of them from the West Bank, will be taken by bus to their home districts. It was unclear whether they, too, would be set free in stages, but the official said the first would be released before any Israeli hostages.

Families hoping their loved ones might be among those set free endured an agonizing wait for any scrap of information, some daring to hope it would be good news.

“I am feeling like yesterday and the day before, only worse,” said Yael Engel Lichi, whose teenage nephew, Ofir Engel, was one of the Israelis seized in the Hamas raid and taken to Gaza, which Hamas controls. “We don’t know anything,” she added. “No official has been in touch to tell us anything.”

Across the divide, three teenagers from the Salaymeh family of East Jerusalem, arrested in July and charged with throwing rocks at Israelis, are on a list of 300 Palestinians whom Israel says it is considering for release. Israel has prohibited contact with detainees since Oct. 7.

An injured child from the Indonesian Hospital in the northern Gaza Strip being brought to Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis in the south on Wednesday.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times

“We don’t know anything about our son,” said Nawaf Salaymeh, the father of one of the youths, Ahmad, and uncle of the other two, Moataz and Mohammad. “Was he tortured or transferred to another prison or put in solitary confinement? Did he even have a mattress to sleep on, a blanket to keep him warm, or food?”

The cease-fire was negotiated through intermediaries, including Qatar, Egypt and the United States. The Biden administration has pressed Israel, privately and publicly, to allow for more lulls in the fighting and to exercise restraint in its military campaign to let more Palestinian civilians get to relative safety and to allow more aid to reach them.

The Hamas attack on Israel killed about 1,200 people, according to the Israeli government, while the health ministry in Gaza says the subsequent Israeli bombing and invasion have killed more than 12,000 people.

Most of Gaza’s estimated 2.3 million people have been displaced from their homes, and most of the population in the north, where the fighting has been concentrated, has evacuated to the south, as directed by Israel. Israeli officials said they would not be allowed to return north during the cease-fire.

Many Gazans are living in squalid conditions, with shortages of food, water and fuel, and medical care is scarce for the growing number of injured and sick. President Biden said the cease-fire would allow more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza, which has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade.

Gazans welcomed the prospect of a lull in the fighting that has devastated much of their territory. But some said it mattered little if they could not return home or obtain needed medical care, and others were all too aware that it would be only a temporary truce in a war that Israeli leaders vow will wipe out Hamas.

Flour being given out to people forced from their homes at the UNRWA headquarters in Khan Younis on Wednesday.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times

“This deal is not a truce; it’s resting time for the soldiers,” said Firas al-Derby, 17, who was reached by phone at a crowded school turned shelter in southern Gaza where his family was staying.

The young man said that cancer treatment for his mother, Hanan, halted last month when the hospital she was going to shut down.

“You think my mom would be happy over a temporary cease-fire?” he asked. “The only thing that would make her happy now is to be able to continue her cancer treatment.”

Late Wednesday, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected a petition to block the cease-fire deal.

Hamas and Israel still disagree on how many captives are held in Gaza — Israel has put the number around 240 — making it hard to work out who exactly will be released, according to four Israeli officials. And exactly how and by what route hostages would be transferred to Israel were still being negotiated on Wednesday, according to a fifth Israeli official. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss security matters.

A mass grave for 111 bodies brought from the north of the Gaza Strip to a cemetery in Khan Younis on Wednesday.Credit…Yousef Masoud for The New York Times

Patrick Kingsley and Hiba Yazbek reported from Jerusalem, and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv. Reporting was contributed by Nadav Gavrielov, Abu Bakr Bashir, Isabel Kershner, Adam Sella, Gabby Sobelman, Karen Zraick, Josh Holder, Rawan Sheikh Ahmad, Aaron Boxerman, Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Shashank Bengali.

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