Israel and Hamas have agreed to stagger the release of 50 civilian hostages in Gaza in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and a four-day cessation of hostilities.
In a statement, the Israeli prime minister’s office approved a deal that included a four-day “cease in hostilities” for the release of 50 hostages, followed by an additional day of ceasefire for every 10 hostages released. The statement did not say when the ceasefire would begin.
A Hamas statement said Israel would release 150 Palestinian women and children from its prisons. Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office did not specifically mention the release of these prisoners.
The pause, which marks the longest pause in the conflict since Hamas’s deadly Oct. 7 attack on Israel, is set to coincide with an influx of humanitarian aid – including some fuel – into Gaza.
A senior US administration official said three Americans – of the 10 unaccounted for – were expected to be freed in the first phase of the deal, including a girl who turned four on Friday.
Hostages in the coastal enclave will be released in batches as Israel and Hamas test the durability of the deal. A senior US official said their rollout would begin 24 hours after the deal was announced, and could take place within four to five days.
Even after the release, Hamas will hold nearly 200 hostages, including Israeli soldiers and other women and children.
Complex negotiations – held by Qatar, which hosts Hamas’s political leadership, and with the intelligence chiefs of the United States and Israel – took weeks to conclude with disagreements over details, logistics and Israel’s final offer to free the hostages.
US President Joe Biden thanked the leaders of Qatar and Egypt for their “crucial leadership and partnership in reaching this agreement” and said he appreciated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s support for “an extended pause to ensure the full implementation of this agreement”.
“Today’s agreement should bring home additional American hostages, and I will not stop until they are all freed,” Biden said.
Qatar confirmed the “success of joint mediation efforts” to reach an agreement and affirmed its “commitment to ongoing diplomatic efforts to defuse tensions” between Israel and Hamas.
Before Israel’s government voted on the deal, Netanyahu said Biden intervened to improve its terms “to include more hostages and at a lower cost.”
Hamas’ initial demand was for a 10-day cessation of hostilities, which was rejected, according to a person familiar with the negotiations. It then asked for five days, with Israel insisting on a short pause.
Other points of contention involved the logistics of the exchange, including the order in which people would be released, whether Israel could use drones to monitor it, the number of Palestinian prisoners freed and where they might go once, the person said. They came out of jail.
If the transfer is successful, negotiators hope it will be the first to release many Israeli citizens and foreigners in exchange for an extended cessation of hostilities, the person added.
The man expressed hope that Hamas would use the pause to gather civilian hostages outside its control in Gaza — some believed to be held by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a small militant group, and criminal gangs in the enclave.
Hamas has said it wants to hold Israeli soldiers captured on Oct. 7, hoping to trade some of them for fighters to high-ranking Palestinians in Israeli prisons.
More than 2 million Palestinians live in dire conditions after being driven into southern Gaza six weeks ago by an Israeli military offensive sparked by an attack by Hamas.
Israel has blockaded the enclave since launching its air and ground offensive, allowing only limited aid into Gaza.
Four of the roughly 240 hostages held by Hamas in the enclave have already been freed, and two have been confirmed dead. A soldier was rescued.
The plight of the hostages added to Israelis’ shock at the October 7 events and has become a politically sensitive issue for Netanyahu.
The families of the captives have pressed his government to do more to protect their freedom even as Israel continues its offensive.
Israel, backed by the Biden administration, has resisted international calls for a ceasefire, insisting that any pause in the fighting would come only after Hamas agrees to release a large number of prisoners.
White House Middle East adviser Brett McGurk told a conference in Bahrain over the weekend that a pause in Israel’s offensive and humanitarian relief in Gaza “will come when the hostages are released.”
According to Israeli officials, Hamas killed about 1,200 people in its offensive. According to Palestinian officials, the Israeli military campaign in Gaza has killed nearly 13,000 people, while the UN