Following an hours-long, nerve-racking delay that threatened to scupper the Israel-Hamas temporary truce agreement, 13 Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza for the past 50 days finally returned to Israel late Saturday after being abducted during the Palestinian terror group’s horrific onslaught in southern Israel on October 7.
The released Israelis on Saturday were eight children, four mothers, and a young woman.
Another four Thai nationals were also freed as part of a separate deal negotiated by Egypt, also with the involvement of Qatar and Iran, after initial reports that seven were set to be freed.
Among those released, many lost family members on October 7, and many have relatives still held hostage. Yahel Shoham, 3, was released without her father, who is still held. Hila Rotem, 13, was released without her mother Raaya, also still a hostage.
Emily Hand, 9, another of those freed, returned to her family who had initially been told she was killed on October 7. Some 195 hostages are still being held.
Most of the Israeli hostages released Saturday were from Kibbutz Be’eri, which was one of the hardest-hit communities last month when thousands of terrorists from Gaza invaded southern Israel and killed some 1,200 people, a majority of them civilians in their homes and at an outdoor music festival, and took about 240 hostages.
Some 100 people were killed in Kibbutz Be’eri and about 50 were taken hostage from there that day.
The 13 freed Israeli hostages were part of the second group of hostages to be released by Hamas, following intense talks mediated by Qatar, Egypt and the United States, as part of a four-day truce deal that would pause fighting in Gaza in exchange for freeing a total of about 50 Israeli hostages overall, in groups of roughly a dozen per day, by Monday.
The deal went into effect with a pause in fighting Friday at 7 a.m., followed by the release of the first group of 13 Israeli hostages on Friday afternoon, after 49 days in Gaza.
On Saturday, as the next group of hostages was set for release, Hamas delayed the transfer for hours before relenting following reported intense pressure by Qatar, Egypt and the US.
Hamas’s military wing claimed it was delaying the release until Israel “adheres to the terms of the agreement related to the entry of aid trucks into the northern Gaza Strip and due to failure to adhere to the agreed-upon standards for releasing prisoners.”
However, Israel has allowed 200 trucks into the Strip, as required by the deal, and Israel’s COGAT military liaison to the Palestinians announced earlier that at least 50 of those trucks reached northern Gaza, a claim confirmed by the Palestinian Red Crescent.
A political source told The Times of Israel that Israel has fulfilled all the terms of the deal. Hamas’s behavior on Saturday evening “embarrassed” the Qatari and Egyptian mediators, said the political source.
US President Joe Biden phoned Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and urged him to act to overcome the Hamas delay in the implementation of the hostage deal, an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel Saturday.
Soon after, Qatar confirmed the release would move ahead.
Qatar foreign ministry spokesperson Majed al-Ansari said in a later statement that Doha hopes that the “momentum” built over the past two days of the truce will lead to its extension past Monday and to advanced negotiations toward a longer-term ceasefire.
The deal incentivizes additional hostage releases, with Israel agreeing to an additional day of a truce for every 10 additional hostages released by Hamas.
Israel received the list of hostages slated for release Saturday on Friday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said. After reviewing the list, Israeli security officials notified hostages’ families, the Prime Minister’s Office said — both those who are and are not on the latest list.
The second group again included 13 Israelis — more of them children than on Friday, when only four children were released. Among the 240 initial abductees, terror factions took about 40 children overall, including babies and toddlers.
Israel has demanded the release of children and their mothers as a priority in the current deal.
The 13 released Israeli hostages on Saturday are:
Hila Rotem, 13, was taken captive by Hamas terrorists with her mother Raaya Rotem, 54, who was not released with her daughter Saturday and remains a hostage in Gaza despite Israel saying the deal includes releasing hostage mothers of children who are set free. The mother and daughter were hiding in the safe room of their home on Kibbutz Be’eri that morning when hundreds of terrorists attacked on October 7, killing an estimated 10% of the residents, and committing atrocities. Hila managed to initially escape from her home and hid in the bushes where she was later found and kidnapped.
Emily Hand, 9, was initially thought to have been among those killed in the attack on Kibbutz Be’eri on October 7. Her family was informed earlier this month that she was believed to be alive and among those held hostage in Gaza. Emily was at a sleepover at a friend’s house on the kibbutz on the night of October 6-7.
Noam Or, 17 and Alma Or, 13, were taken hostage by Hamas terrorists from their home in Kibbutz Be’eri on October 7, alongside their father Dror Or, 48, and their cousin, Liam Or, 18. Mother Yonat Or was killed in the attack. Father Dror and cousin Liam are assumed to remain as hostages in Gaza.
Noam Avigdori, 12, and her mother Sharon Avigdori, 52, along with some 10 members of their extended family, were abducted from Kibbutz Be’eri. A number of family members were killed that day. Noam appeared in a number of videos that circulated as part of the campaign to free the hostages.
Shoshan Haran, 67, was taken from her home in Kibbutz Be’eri on October 7. She is part of the extended Avigdori-Shoham-Kipnis families who were abducted, and is Sharon Avigdori’s sister-in-law. Her husband, Avshalom Haran, who had been presumed kidnapped, was identified among those killed in mid-October. Her sister Lilach Kipnis and brother-in-law Eviatar Kipnis were also killed.
Haran’s daughter Adi Shoham, 38, her children Yahel Shoham, 3, and Naveh Shoham, 8, were also released Saturday. Son-in-law Tal Shoham remains a hostage.
Shiri Weiss, 53 and her daughter, Noga Weiss, 18, were also abducted by Hamas terrorists from their home in Kibbutz Be’eri. Father Ilan Weiss is presumed captive in Gaza. Members of their extended family — Ilan’s brother and sister-in-law, Amir and Mati — were killed.
Maya Regev, 21, was abducted alongside her brother Itai, 18, while trying to flee from the Nova music festival on October 7, where terrorists killed some 360 people. Itai is presumed to remain in Gaza as a hostage.
Additionally, the four Thai hostages released on Saturday were named as Natthaphon Onkaew, Khomkrit Chombua, Anucha Angkaew and Manee Jirachat.
— שי ישראל (@ShaIsrael2) November 26, 2023
The freed hostages Saturday were taken by Red Cross ambulances from Gaza into Egypt, where they underwent initial medical checks.
They were then taken to the Kerem Shalom crossing with Israel and, from there, transferred to Israeli hospitals for treatment and monitoring.
Meanwhile, the Israel Prison Service released 39 Palestinian prisoners as part of the deal with Hamas.
The Palestinian prisoners are 33 minors and six women.
The Prison Service said the prisoners were moved to Ofer Prison in the West Bank for medical checks by the International Red Cross, ahead of their release to the West Bank or East Jerusalem. The same process took place on Friday.
The prisoners went free only after the second group of Israeli hostages were released and their identities verified.
Meanwhile, in a rare move, a small Qatari private jet landed at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport Saturday with a delegation of officials from the Gulf nation, which has no officials ties with Israel but whose mediation with Hamas was key to the current hostage release deal.
Hebrew media outlets reported that the team was in Israel to discuss the current agreement, as well as potential future deals. Previously, Mossad chief David Barnea had flown to Qatar to negotiate the current deal.
The flight arrived from Larnaca in Cyprus. Channel 12 reported it had stopped there briefly to avoid making a direct flight from Doha to Tel Aviv.
Israeli officials did not comment on the jet’s arrival.
On Friday, as part of a separate deal between Bangkok and Hamas via Iran, 11 foreign nationals — 10 Thais and one Filipino — were released after being abducted on October 7. Thailand has said it believes some 20 more are held in Gaza.
Ahead of the hostage releases, the military assigned a single soldier to accompany each Israeli child or family from Egypt. Soldiers were instructed to identify themselves and speak reassuringly to the children, but at the same time not hold their hand or carry them unless they agreed. Should those actions be necessary, the soldier was told to explain exactly what they were doing and why.
As a general instruction for the operation over the coming days, soldiers were told to avoid answering any questions by released children about the whereabouts of their parents or other relatives — some of whom were murdered on October 7, while others remain hostage in Gaza.
The military prepared psychologists and mental health experts to greet the hostages and gradually explain to them what happened in their communities on October 7, when they believe the time is right.
The Health Ministry has set up strict protocols for the treatment of the released hostages.
Emanuel Fabian, Jacob Magid, Tal Schneider and Renee Ghert-Zand contributed to this report.