More captives are freed as Israel and Hamas agree to extend their truce in Gaza
Updated November 28, 2023 at 1:22 AM ET
TEL AVIV, Israel — Another 11 Israeli hostages were freed by Hamas in exchange for 33 Palestinians prisoners on Monday — part of a temporary cease-fire deal that the two sides have agreed to extend.
An elite unit of the Israel's military and its domestic security service "are now escorting the 11 abductees," the Israeli military said in a statement. "After undergoing an initial assessment of their medical condition, our forces will accompany the returnees until they reach their families in the hospitals."
All 11 captives were seized from the same kibbutz community, known as Nir Oz, near the Gaza border during Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Around 240 hostages were taken and about 1,200 people killed in the attack, Israel says.
Some of those released on Monday have dual French, German and Argentinian citizenship. Kibbutz officials said those being released are mothers and children as young as 3 years old who all have fathers still held in Gaza.
"The news this evening brings a sigh of relief to our community, however we remain deeply concerned about our loved ones that are still held hostage," said Osnat Peri, the head of the kibbutz. "We demand the return of all hostages, immediately, whatever it takes." Peri said out of the hostages still held, 49 are from Nir Oz, including women, men, children, mothers, fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers.
Later Monday, Israel released Palestinian prisoners as part of its end of the deal.
The Associated Press reported a bus with prisoners arrived in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Qatar – which is mediating these deals – posted on X earlier that Israel would release 33 prisoners, including 30 minors and three women.
According to the AP, Monday's swap brought the total number of hostages released to 50 Israelis and 19 people of other nationalities. Israel has been releasing three prisoners for every Israeli freed, expected to bring the total to 150 by the end of Monday night's exchange.
The extension of the deal would allow for dozens more captives to be freed and increase the flow of humanitarian aid into the embattled Gaza Strip.
Hours before Hamas freed the fourth batch of captives, the foreign ministry of Qatar said the truce had been prolonged. Qatar has been a key broker in the negotiations over the temporary cease-fire, along with Egypt and the U.S.
In a statement, Hamas confirmed the agreement for another two days "under the same conditions as the previous truce."
Israel did not immediately comment on the expansion of the cease-fire, but previously indicated its willingness to continue the arrangement for up to 10 days if Hamas continued freeing captives at a rate of 10 per day. Around 240 captives were seized by Hamas in last month's attack on Israel and about 1,200 people killed.
U.S. President Biden thanked Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani of Qatar, and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt for their work to reach an extension of the humanitarian pause in Gaza. "We will not stop until all of the hostages held by Hamas terrorists are released," Biden said in a statement.
The extension comes on what would have been the last day of the previously negotiated hostages-for-prisoners swaps. After Sunday night's exchange of another 17 hostages by Hamas for an additional 39 Palestinians jailed by Israel — the third of four such daily swaps agreed to as part of the original cease-fire deal — there were already signs that lengthening the timeframe was in the works.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told NPR's Morning Edition earlier Monday that the "onus is going to be on Hamas" to come up with an additional 10 hostages per day. He said it's up to Israel and Hamas to agree on who they would be. "This isn't hyperbole," Kirby added. "We have been working this literally by the hour, and that will be no different today."
Israel has vowed to resume its stated goal of crushing Hamas once the truce is broken or expires. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, speaking to soldiers who left Gaza for a short break, vowed: "We will return to fighting and use the same strength and more. This is the mission now."
So far, 3 Palestinians released for every hostage set free
Among those released so far are 17 Thai laborers seized in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, as well as one Filipino. A dual Israeli-Russian citizen was freed on Sunday after what Hamas described in a statement as the "efforts of Russian President Vladimir Putin and in appreciation of the Russian position in support of the Palestinian cause."
In seven weeks of Israeli airstrikes and ground assaults in Gaza, more than 13,300 Palestinians have been killed, mostly women and youth, according to Palestinian health officials. The health ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip reports a higher death toll, but it does not distinguish between civilians and militants.
For every hostage released by Hamas, Israel has been releasing three Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons.
There are growing signs that anger over the war in Gaza and elation at the release of scores of jailed Palestinians is fueling Hamas' popularity in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Speaking to NPR last week, Dana Hafi, a 21-year-old resident of the Qalandiya refugee camp in Ramallah, said she didn't want to talk about politics, but then added, "but Hamas is the only thing left fighting for Palestinians." If Israel crushes Hamas, "they will crush all Palestinians," she said.
Umm Mohammed, another resident of Qalandiya, said she doesn't want war. "No one wants war," the 55-year-old said.
"People want their children to live, to grow up and learn and become doctors and engineers," she said. But speaking of Israeli soldiers, Mohammed said, "when they come, evict you from your home, from your land, where are we meant to go?"
Michael Barsinai, from Kibbutz Be'eri, one of the hardest hit Israeli communities in the Oct. 7 attack, told NPR Sunday that he supports an extension of the the cease-fired deal, "as long as we get hostages back, that's fine," he said. "We remember all those that are still there."
One hostage, Elma Avraham, 84, who was released by Hamas on Sunday, was flown by helicopter directly from Gaza due to a serious medical condition, Israeli media reports. She remains in an intensive care unit "and her life is still in danger," according to The Times of Israel.
Other hostages report losing weight during their 50 days in captivity, surviving mostly on bread and rice. Some slept on rows of chairs and many were held underground.
Shmuel Brodutch, whose daughter-in-law and three grandchildren were released by Hamas on Sunday, told Morning Edition that he couldn't divulge details about their captivity or release.
"I just want to tell you that I'm happy about them being here, I'm ready to hold them and to kiss them and to spoil them and that's it," he said.
Pause in fighting enables delivery of humanitarian aid
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in its latest update, says the temporary cease-fire "has been largely maintained."
"This pause has enabled the U.N. to enhance the delivery of assistance into and across Gaza," it said.
Speaking on Morning Edition, Juliette Touma, the communications director for UNRWA, the U.N. relief agency that oversees the Palestinian territories, said it's "safe to say" there's been an increase in the number of aid trucks and humanitarian supplies flowing into Gaza since before the pause. That now includes fuel and cooking gas, which she called "major breakthroughs." Still, Touma, who was in Gaza before the pause began, said more is needed.
"We also hope and call for the transformation of that pause into a much longer-term humanitarian cease-fire across the board," Touma said. "It's been a brutal, brutal war with so many losses on all sides. It has got to stop."
Israel's relentless military campaign in Gaza in the lead-up to the pause has been described by OCHA in desperate terms. The agency says nearly 80% of the territory's 2.2 million have been internally displaced as a result of the seven weeks of fighting.
Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) said 200 humanitarian aid trucks were dispatched Monday to the Gaza Strip, through the Rafah crossing with Egypt. The humanitarian aid trucks only carry food, water, shelter equipment and medical supplies.
Since the assault on Gaza began after the Hamas attack, Israel's military has focused operations in the north of the territory, warning Gazans to flee south to avoid being injured or killed.
It said that overcrowding and poor sanitation at shelters administered by UNRWA have caused "significant increases in some communicable diseases and conditions such as diarrhea, acute respiratory infections, skin infections and hygiene-related conditions like lice."
The Gaza Strip has been under an electricity blackout since Israeli authorities cut power, and fuel reserves to the territory's sole power plant are depleted. The supply of potable water in Gaza's south, part of which comes by way of two pipelines from Israel, has continued, OCHA says, while UNRWA was getting fuel supplies to help run two seawater desalination plants that also supply the south.
Meanwhile, citing the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, OCHA says the market price of vegetables has surged 32%, with wheat and flour up 65%. The price of mineral water, it said, had doubled since the conflict began.
NPR's Scott Neuman, Daniel Estrin and Brian Mann reported from Tel Aviv. NPR's Lauren Frayer reported from Ramallah in the West Bank. NPR's Rachel Treisman contributed from Westport, Conn.
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