Israeli official says Friday is the soonest the deal with Hamas would take effect
Updated November 22, 2023 at 6:21 PM ET
TEL AVIV, Israel — The release of hostages being held by militants in Gaza — in return for a release of Palestinians held by Israel — will not start before Friday, Israel's national security adviser said in a statement.
The hostage release is tied to plans for a four-day pause in fighting that has not yet started. The announcement from National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi dampened hopes that either will start Thursday, or that the deal will indeed stay on track, though Hanegbi said negotiations continue.
"Negotiations for the release of our captives are progressing," he said. "The start of the release will proceed according to the original agreement between the parties, and not before Friday."
Israel and Hamas on Wednesday announced details of the four-day cease-fire, saying it calls for freeing at least 50 Israeli women and minors seized during last month's Hamas attack on Israel in exchange for at least 150 Palestinian women and minors held in Israeli jails.
In Washington, Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the agreement for the release of hostages, "including American citizens." There are 10 dual U.S.-Israeli citizens unaccounted for, a senior Biden administration official said, three of whom could be released as part of the deal, including a 3-year-old whose parents were killed on Oct. 7.
"Her birthday is actually Friday," Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, told NPR's Morning Edition. "She'll turn 4 on Friday."
In a news briefing late Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is "constantly working to bring everyone back."
"What paved the way for this deal was massive military pressure on Hamas and great political pressure," he said. "I believe that this combination will allow the release of more hostages in the next stages."
The deal, brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the U.S., is set to go into effect when the first Israeli hostages are released by Hamas, both sides said.
It comes more than six weeks into an intense war in Gaza triggered by Hamas' massive Oct. 7 attack on Israel, in which Israel says militants killed some 1,200 Israelis and seized around 240 hostages. At least 12,700 Palestinians have been killed in Israel's bombardments on Gaza, according to Palestinian health officials. But this figure hasn't been updated for several days following the collapse of communications and hospital closures in the north of Gaza.
The deal outlines an initial four-day pause in the fighting, with at least 10 Israelis released each day of the cease-fire, both sides have said. The Palestinian prisoners would be freed over the same period.
The International Committee of the Red Cross will act as an intermediary in the hostage/detainee swaps, according to an unnamed Israeli official briefing Israeli media. Each day, lists of Israeli hostages and Palestinians jailed by Israel will be exchanged. The ratio will be three Palestinians for one Israeli, the official said.
"Our role is to facilitate the implementation, once the parties agree," the ICRC said in a statement Wednesday.
In Wednesday night's briefing, Netanyahu, reading from what he said was part of the agreement, said that the ICRC "will be allowed to visit the rest of the hostages and provide them with necessary medicines."
Despite the temporary truce, Netanyahu said: "I want to be clear. The war continues. We will continue it until we achieve all our goals. To return all our abductees, to eliminate Hamas."
In answer to a question later, Netanyahu said the prisoners who are being released "are not murderers, but they are dangerous terrorists. We will do our best to make sure they do not harm Israelis, but the risk exists."
Israel has said it is willing to extend the temporary cease-fire up to five more days, and free an additional 150 Palestinian prisoners and detainees, if Hamas frees 50 additional Israeli hostages — which could bring the total number of those ultimately freed under the deal to 100 Israelis and 300 Palestinians.
McGurk said the deal is structured to incentivize additional releases.
"Four days is four days," he said. "You can do more with more time, and the onus for more time right now is on Hamas."
Early Wednesday, Israel published the names of Palestinian prisoners slated for release in accordance with Israeli law, which allows the Israeli public to submit objections to Israel's Supreme Court. An Israeli group representing victims of Palestinian attacks petitioned the court to block the deal, Israel's Channel 13 reported. The court, however, is not expected to intervene.
On the list are 33 women and the remainder are boys ages 14 to 18 who were arrested by Israeli forces in recent years. Some are Palestinians being held without charge, while others are awaiting trial on charges ranging from incitement and stone-throwing to attempted murder.
"Holding people as hostages is itself illegal, a war crime, and Hamas should release all the hostages unconditionally. But it is appropriate that Israel release prisoners and detainees to advance this goal," said Jessica Montell, executive director of the Israeli human rights group HaMoked, which provides legal aid to Palestinians.
McGurk stressed that the deal came out of weeks of "painstaking" work. And while he called it good news, he stressed that "until we see the hostages come home, nobody here is sitting quietly."
Families await news of their loved ones
Although the names of the Israelis that Hamas intends to free have not been made public, news of the deal sparked hope among families on both sides of the conflict who have waited anxiously for the release of their loved ones.
Hen Avigdori, an Israeli comedy writer whose wife Sharon and 12-year-old daughter Noam are being held in Gaza, said the Israeli army promised to notify him ahead of time if they are slated to be released.
"I am calm, because I know that there is hope. But I'm also calm because I know the hope can be shattered at any moment," Avigdori told NPR.
A Palestinian resident of Jerusalem, Yousef Afghani, was surprised to see his 40-year-old daughter Aisha Afghani on Israel's list of prisoners it is prepared to release. She has served seven years of her 15-year sentence, convicted for an attempted 2016 stabbing in which no one was wounded. Her father told NPR she was carrying a knife but denied she attempted a stabbing.
"My feelings are the feelings of any father. Celebration and happiness and joy," Afghani told NPR. But he also condemned the kidnapping of Israelis to Gaza, which resulted in the deal to free his daughter. "We are against any kind of attack against civilians."
Boaz Atzili, an international studies professor at American University in Washington, D.C., has been waiting six weeks for any news of his cousin, Aviv, and his cousin's wife Liat, who are believed to be held hostage in Gaza.
Atzili told NPR's Morning Edition that every hostage who is freed — especially children — is a good thing, but he hopes the deal will be expanded even further to release all of them. He added that "no price is too high to pay for the life of so many people," and lamented the toll of the fighting on Palestinian civilians, too.
"Aviv and Liat are peace-loving people, they are peace advocates," Atzili added. "I want to tell the Palestinians that these are not your enemies. We all need to look ahead. And there are two nations, two people in this small land and neither of them is going anywhere — so we need to start to think about a peaceful solution."
Meanwhile, in Rome, Pope Francis met separately with Israeli relatives of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, and families of Palestinians held in Israel. In unscripted remarks afterward, Francis said he felt "both sides are suffering," but that the conflict had "gone beyond war. This is not war; it's terrorism."
In addition to Israelis and U.S. citizens, foreigners from several other countries are among the people believed to be held by Hamas. Among them are more than 20 Thai farm laborers seized near the Gaza border in the Oct. 7 attack.
Deal will also allow fuel into Gaza
The agreement, which appears to have been in the works for weeks, was approved by Israel in a marathon series of cabinet meetings that stretched into the early hours Wednesday.
Israel's Channel 12 news says the deal allows "significant" humanitarian aid into Gaza, including desperately needed fuel to run generators — the only source of electricity throughout much of the besieged territory. Since Israel launched airstrikes and a subsequent ground invasion of Gaza after last month's Hamas attack, the territory's 2.2 million people have experienced dire shortages of food, water and medical supplies. Hamas said "hundreds" of trucks carrying aid and fuel would be allowed to enter Gaza.
In a statement late Tuesday, President Biden said he and first lady Jill Biden were "keeping all those held hostage and their loved ones close to our hearts these many weeks, and I am extraordinarily gratified that some of these brave souls, who have endured weeks of captivity and an unspeakable ordeal, will be reunited with their families once this deal is fully implemented."
Biden thanked Qatar's Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani and Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi for help in brokering the deal.
Speaking in Qatar, Al Thani said he hopes the humanitarian truce could provide a framework to "stop the war machine and bloodshed." Sissi said Egypt would continue "efforts made to reach final and sustainable solutions that achieve justice, impose peace, and guarantee the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people."
Both sides stress the war is not over
Israel has made clear that the deal doesn't mean the fighting is over. In a statement, the Israeli government said it "will continue the war in order to return home all of the hostages, complete the elimination of Hamas and ensure that there will be no new threat to the State of Israel from Gaza."
Hamas, in its own statement, welcomed the agreement that it said was reached after "difficult and complex negotiations for many days." But the militant group that has controlled Gaza since 2007 also cautioned "our hands will remain on the trigger, and our winning battalions will remain in control to defend our people and defeat occupation and aggression."
NPR's Scott Neuman and Daniel Estrin reported from Tel Aviv. NPR's Ruth Sherlock contributed from Rome. NPR's Rachel Treisman contributed from Westport, Conn.
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