A group of 24 hostages — including 13 Israelis and a number of Thais — were released from the Gaza Strip on Friday, as a breakthrough deal between Israel and Hamas to pause fighting took hold after weeks of secretive diplomacy.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said on X, formerly known as Twitter, that it transferred the hostages from Gaza to the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. Later, the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement that the hostages “underwent an initial medical assessment inside Israeli territory” and soldiers would then accompany them to hospitals “where they will be reunited with their families.”
Among those named as being freed on a list released by the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was Hanna Katzir, 76, whose death had been announced on Telegram on Tuesday by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group.
Doron Katz-Asher, 34, and her two young daughters, Raz, 4, and Aviv, 2, were also on the list, along with 6-year-old Amelia Aloni and her mother Daniel, 45. Ohad Munder-Zichri, who spent his 9th birthday in captivity, was also listed along with his mother Keren, 54, and grandmother Ruth, 78. Several other seniors were also on the list.
In exchange, Israel released 39 Palestinians it had been holding for a range of alleged offenses. The Red Cross said on X that it had facilitated the release of 33 detainees from Ofer prison to the city of Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank. Qadura Fares, who heads an advocacy group for prisoners, told The Associated Press the remaining six were being freed from a Jerusalem lockup.
Ten Thai nationals and a Filipino citizen captured from Israel on Oct. 7 were also released by Hamas, Qatar’s foreign ministry said. Earlier in the day, Thailand’s prime minister had said in a post on social media that 12 Thais had been released. The reason for the discrepancy was not immediately clear.
In a televised address from Nantucket, Massachusetts, President Joe Biden thanked the leaders of Qatar, Egypt and Israel, who helped broker the deal that is set to release at least 50 Hamas hostages in all. In return, Israel said it would free 150 Palestinian prisoners, mostly from the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Biden said that he expects more hostages to be released and is hopeful that the Americans still being held would soon be freed. But he added that he did not “trust Hamas to do anything right.”
“I only trust Hamas to respond to pressure,” he said, adding that he hoped the cease-fire could last more than four days.
Elsewhere, Mohammed al-Khulaifi, Qatar’s chief negotiator in the cease-fire talks, also told NBC News that he was “hopeful” that at least four U.S. citizens, “women and children,” would be freed in the coming days.
Around 240 hostages are believed to have been taken on Oct. 7, and the fate of the hostages has been a central source of grief and turmoil in Israel. Their families have campaigned relentlessly to secure their release, including taking over a public square opposite the defense ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, and marching 40 miles from the city to the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem.
Prior to this, only four hostages had been freed from Gaza, leaving in two pairs; Israel also freed one of its soldiers while conducting ground operations in the strip. Two others, including another soldier, were found dead.
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In a video address after the hostages were released Friday, Netanyahu said his government was “committed to the return of all our abductees,” adding it was “one of the goals of the war and we are committed to achieving all the goals of the war.”
Meanwhile, the cease-fire planned for at least four days largely held, allowing hundreds of trucks carrying aid and some fuel into the densely populated enclave that has been besieged and bombarded for weeks since Hamas’ surprise terror attack on Oct. 7.
The deal offered some relief for the 2.3 million people living in the enclave with dwindling supplies.
Families of hostages participate in a special shabbat prayer service in Tel Aviv on Friday ahead of the release of some of those held in Gaza.Alexi J. Rosenfeld / Getty Images
Israel has been facing increasing global pressure over the fate of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
The country has been conducting an intense bombardment and ground assault on the enclave, one that it says has been carefully targeted on Hamas but that has killed more than 14,500 people including some 5,000 children, according to the local health ministry.
On Friday, Palestinians appeared to take the opportunity to travel back to their homes to assess the damage. This, despite leaflets dropped by Israel warning them not to reenter the north, the main battleground of the war.
“We are on our way to Khuza’a to see what happened to our home,” one woman, Suhaila Abu Al-Jal, told NBC News as she walked among crowds through the destroyed buildings in Khan Younis. Khuza’a is a neighborhood to the east of the city, near the border with Israel.
“We pray to God to give us patience,” she said. Because “we do not want this truce: We want it to last forever.”
As Gaza descends further into a humanitarian disaster, the deal to pause the fighting was achieved after what one Biden administration official described as an “extremely excruciating five-week process.”
The U.S. president was directly involved in the negotiations and received hourly updates on the progress, the administration official said. Among the early sticking points, they said, were Israel’s requirement that Hamas provide identifying information and “proof of life” for the hostages and Hamas’ demand that fuel enter Gaza.
A senior White House administration official and a senior Middle East official said that the release of two Americans — Judith Raanan and her teenage daughter, Natalie — was viewed as a “pilot” case that proved the effectiveness of the system that had been put into place to create a potential pipeline for hostages to be released.
Also, Netanyahu needed some convincing.
“Just a couple of days ago, Biden came with the final deal saying a five-day pause and Netanyahu said four days,” a senior Israeli government official told NBC News. “This deal was a Biden deal, not a Netanyahu deal.”
Alexander Smith is a senior reporter for NBC News Digital based in London.
Corky Siemaszko is a senior reporter for NBC News Digital.
Keir Simmons is chief international correspondent for NBC News, based in London.
Anna Schecter is a senior producer in the NBC News Investigations Unit.