Israel awaits 2nd group of hostages following long Hamas delay on release

13 more people expected to return, following 1st group of 13 on Friday, but process stalls for hours; US, Qatar, Egypt intervene; Qatari delegation arrives in Israel

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers wait for the arrival of Israeli hostages at Schneider Children's Medical Center in Petah Tikva, November 24, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative: Israeli soldiers wait for the arrival of Israeli hostages at Schneider Children's Medical Center in Petah Tikva, November 24, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel was readying for the arrival of a second group of hostages held in Gaza set to be freed by Hamas on Saturday afternoon, but the terror group delayed the release for hours at the last minute.

The transfer of the hostages is expected to take place before midnight on Saturday, following intense pressure by Qatar, Egypt, and the United States.

As the delay stretched on for hours, US President Joe Biden phoned up Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and urged him to act to overcome the Hamas holdup in the implementation of the hostage deal, an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel Saturday.

The Prime Minister’s Office said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a situation assessment on Saturday with security forces “to make sure that the second stage will proceed as planned.”

Soon after, Qatar confirmed the release would move ahead.

Qatar’s 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 its scheduled end on Monday and to advanced negotiations toward a longer-term ceasefire. The deal incentivizes additional hostage releases, with Israel agreeing to one additional day of truce for every 10 additional hostages released by Hamas.

Earlier, Hamas’s military wing claimed it was delaying the release of Saturday’s group of 13 Israeli hostages 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 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.

An Israeli official had reportedly threatened earlier that if the next group of Israeli hostages were not released from Gaza by midnight, the IDF would “restart ground operations” in the Strip.

The official was cited in a number of Hebrew media outlets but there is no official confirmation.

According to the signed deal, at least 50 hostages would be released in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners and a four-day pause in fighting, as well as increased aid to Gaza. Hamas has accused Israel of violating the terms, which Israel denies.

Israeli sources, in turn, have accused Hamas of breaching the terms with the list of hostages set for release Saturday, including regarding the obligation to release mothers together with their children.

Amid Hamas claims that Israel has not released Palestinian security prisoners in the order promised, Channel 12 cited an official source in Jerusalem denying any breach of the deal.

“Just as Hamas decides whom to release from its list [of hostages] in each stage, so do we decide which Palestinian security prisoners to free [in return],” said the source.

The source also said humanitarian aid has been delivered as agreed, including to northern Gaza.

The second group of hostages were initially slated to be released at 4 p.m. Saturday on the second day of a pause in fighting as part of a hostage deal that went into effect Friday at 7 a.m. The temporary truce between Israel and Hamas includes a four-day pause in the war, the first since Hamas’s October 7 assault on Israel, and the release of some 50 Israeli hostages in groups of roughly a dozen per day. The truce can potentially be extended for one extra day for each additional group of 10 hostages freed by Hamas.

On Friday night, Israel received the list of hostages who were slated to be released Saturday, Netanyahu’s office said. After reviewing the list, Israeli security officials notified hostages’ families, the PMO said — both those who are and are not on the latest list.

The second group was again expected to include 13 Israelis, and was said to include more children than on Friday.

Only four of the 13 Israelis released Friday were children. Hamas and other terror factions abducted some 240 people on October 7, including about 40 children. Israel demanded the release of children and their mothers as a priority in the current deal.

Netanyahu’s office has urged the media to act with caution and avoid publicizing the names of those on the list before they are back in Israel.

Meanwhile, the Israel Prison Service said it had received a list of 42 Palestinian prisoners who will be released later in the day as part of the deal with Hamas.

A screengrab from a UGC video obtained on November 24, 2023 shows the transfer by Israeli forces of Palestinian prisoners from the Damon prison in Dalyat al-Karmel to the West Bank prison of Ofer, ahead of a planned release in exchange for Israeli hostages held captive in Gaza by Hamas terrorists since October 7. (ANONYMOUS / AFP)

The Prison Service said the prisoners would be 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 will go free only after the second group of Israeli hostages is 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 in order to avoid making a direct flight from Doha to Tel Aviv.

Israeli officials did not comment on the jet’s arrival.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meets with Qatari Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani at a hotel during a day of meetings, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Amman, Jordan, November 4, 2023. (Jonathan Ernst/ Pool Photo via AP)

As part of a separate deal between Bangkok and Hamas, 11 foreign nationals — 10 Thais and one Filipino — were released by Hamas on Friday after being abducted on October 7. Thailand has said it believes some 20 more are held in Gaza. It was possible, but not confirmed, that more Thai citizens would be freed Saturday.

Thailand’s deputy ambassador to Israel told Ynet that Bangkok welcomed Friday’s release but was “anxiously awaiting the return of our other citizens.”

The Thai citizens released from Hamas captivity are seen with Thai officials in Israel on November 25, 2023. (Courtesy)

The first group of 13 Israelis, including three mothers and their four young children, returned to Israel Friday night after being held hostage in Gaza for 49 days. The released Israeli hostages, 12 of whom are from Kibbutz Nir Oz, are only a small group out of the 240 held by Gaza terrorists since October 7, when 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists slaughtered 1,200 people in southern Israel, most of them civilians, amid shocking acts of brutality.

All returned in relatively good physical condition, according to doctors who have been treating them since their arrival. Wolfson Medical Center, which treated a number of elderly returnees, said some of the women were “feeble and exhausted.” All remained under observation at hospitals alongside their families.

Emilia Alony, 5, is reunited with her grandmother after she was held hostage in Gaza, November 25, 2023. (Schneider Children’s Hospital)

Images and videos of the first 13 returnees reuniting with their loved ones swept the nation.

The hostages were met by members of the Shin Bet security service in Egypt and then ferried by the Israel Defense Forces in an operation dubbed “Heaven’s Door” via the Kerem Shalom crossing into Israel. They were taken to Hatzerim Airbase near Beersheba for an initial reception and to undergo a short physical and mental checkup. They were then taken to medical centers in central Israel by helicopter and ambulance, to be reunited with their relatives.

Crowds lined roads in southern Israel as ambulances passed through, and dozens gathered outside the hospitals to cheer as the released hostages disembarked from the helicopters.

Ahead of the releases, the military assigned a single soldier to accompany each 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.

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