Another 16 people were released from Hamas captivity in Gaza on Wednesday night, including 12 Israelis — five of them teens — and four Thais, as efforts were ongoing to extend the truce deal for at least another two days in exchange for the release of further hostages.
The group saw a significant delay in its release, with 10 Israelis and the four Thais being handed over the Red Cross only around 11 p.m. The group passed through the Rafah crossing into Egypt and entered Israel around midnight.
Two Israeli women with dual Russian citizenship were freed earlier in the evening as a “gesture” to Russian President Vladimir Putin, separate from the deal with Israel.
The Thais were also not part of the ceasefire deal, with their release taking place under an agreement with Bangkok. Thai officials have not published the identities of those released.
A senior Israeli official told reporters earlier on Wednesday that Israeli, American, Egyptian and Qatari representatives were in Qatar to discuss extending the truce the night, which would otherwise expire early Thursday. The pause in fighting had been pre-approved by the Israeli cabinet for up to 10 days, and has so far been in effect for six.
Ten of those released Wednesday were part of the extension of the ongoing deal, the sixth such group to be freed so far.
The release brings the number of civilian hostages freed from Gaza in the last week to 97 — 73 Israelis and 24 foreign nationals, mostly Thai agricultural workers. The IDF said earlier Wednesday evening, ahead of the latest release, that 159 hostages are estimated to remain in Gaza.
They were all kidnapped from southern Israel on October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists killed 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took some 240 hostages, including about 40 children.
As part of the ongoing deal, Israel was releasing a further 30 Palestinian security prisoners late Wednesday evening, bringing the total released so far to 210.
Among those freed from the Strip were five children aged 18 and under, and seven other women, including one with US citizenship. Many of them have family members still held hostage.
The latest release reduces the number of known hostages aged 18 and under in the Strip to four: Kfir and Ariel Bibas, 10-months and 4-years-old, as well as siblings Aisha and Bilal Ziyadne.
Hamas claimed Wednesday that the Bibas children and their mother, Shiri, had been killed, something the IDF said it could not confirm but was investigating.
Who was released
Those released Wednesday night included Raaya Rotem, 54, the mother of 13-year-old Hila Rotem who was freed alone several days ago. Hila told family members that the two had been held together until shortly before her release, angering Israel, which had demanded that mothers and children not be separated as part of the hostage deal.
The two Russian-Israelis released outside the framework of the deal were Yelena Trupanov, 50, and her mother, Irena Tati, 73. Yelena’s son, Sasha, remains in captivity along with his girlfriend, Sapir Cohen.
Yelena’s husband and Sasha’s father, Vitaly, was murdered on October 7 in Kibbutz Nir Oz, and buried without any of his immediate family present.
The youngest hostage released on Wednesday was 13-year-old Gali Tarshansky, taken captive from Kibbutz Be’eri on October 7. She was grabbed as she and her father Ilya jumped out of their safe room window after terrorists set their home on fire. Her 15-year-old brother Lior Tarshansky was murdered. Ilya survived.
Tarshansky’s mother, Reuma Aroussi, has been one of the public faces of the battle to return the hostages home. Reuma said the family chose not to bury or grieve Lior as they continued to battle for the return of Gali.
Another freed hostage was Itay Regev, 18, who was kidnapped with his 21-year-old sister, Maya Regev. Maya, who was shot before she was kidnapped, was released Saturday night without Itay. She underwent surgery following her release and is said to be recovering well. The siblings from Ramat Hasharon were taken hostage from the Supernova music festival in Re’im.
Upon Maya’s release, her mother, Mirit said her heart was “split in two,” as she rejoiced over the release of her daughter and feared for her son still held in Gaza.
Another partial family reunion can take place after Liam Or, 18, was freed from captivity. Or was taken captive with his cousins Alma and Noam, who were freed on Saturday. Yonat Or — Alma and Noam’s mother, and Liam’s aunt — was murdered on October 7, something the children only found out once they were released from Gaza.
Dror Or, Liam’s uncle and Alma and Noam’s father, is still believed to be held captive in Gaza.
Engel, a Jerusalemite, was visiting his girlfriend in Kibbutz Be’eri on October 7. He was taken hostage with her father and her uncle, Eli and Yossi Sharabi, who are both still held hostage. The rest of Yossi’s family was murdered in the onslaught. Engel’s girlfriend survived.
Shani, who lived in Be’eri, was the only member of his family taken hostage, loaded into a car with Engel and the Sharabis as his mother and two younger sisters looked on helplessly.
Four other women were released from Hamas captivity on Wednesday evening, with two of them having husbands still being held captive.
Raz Ben Ami, 57, was captured from Kibbutz Be’eri on October 7 along with her husband, Ohad. Family members say that Raz has growths in her brain that press on her nerves and cause terrible pain, and can’t survive for long without her medications. Ohad, also 57, is still being held hostage. Both also hold German citizenship.
The women released also include US-Israeli citizen Liat Beinin Atzili, 49, taken from Kibbutz Nir Oz. Atzili, a tour guide at Yad Vashem, was kidnapped along with her husband, Aviv — who remains behind in Gaza.
The couple’s three children, ages 22, 20 and 18, were unharmed and have been desperately awaiting the return of their parents.
Moran Stela Yanai, 40, a jewelry designer abducted from the Supernova music festival, was also released on Wednesday night.
Days after the massacre and mass abduction at the festival — where Stela Yanai was going to sell her designs — her family came across a video posted online from the day, showing her sitting on the ground looking terrified.
Yarden Roman-Gat, 36, taken captive from Kibbutz Be’eri, was also freed from the Strip, and can be reunited with her husband and daughter, who managed to escape as terrorists tried to take the three of them captive.
Roman-Gat, a dual Israeli-German citizen, was visiting the kibbutz for the holiday after the family had moved away only a few weeks before, unable to stomach the ongoing rocket attacks that were common in the area.
Yarden, her husband, Alon Gat and their three-year-old daughter Geffen were forced into a car heading toward Gaza on October 7, but they seized an opportunity to jump out when the terrorists spotted an IDF tank.
They all jumped out, and Yarden handed Geffen to Alon as they split up, knowing he could run faster than she could. Alon hid with his daughter for 12 hours in bushes before being rescued. They found no trace of Yarden.
Truce in the balance
With close to 100 hostages already freed from Gaza — including one rescued by the IDF and the bodies of two recovered by the military from the Strip — all eyes are on the remainder of those held captive, mostly men, some of them elderly, and a number of IDF soldiers.
An extra two days of the truce would see an additional 20 Israelis released from the Strip, in exchange for 60 more Palestinian prisoners and a further 48-hour pause in fighting.
Israeli officials vowed Wednesday that the IDF would continue its ground offensive in Gaza in the coming days.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “In recent days I’ve heard a question: Will Israel return to fighting after this stage of returning our hostages is over? My response is an unequivocal yes,” the premier says. “There is no way we won’t return to fighting until the end.”
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said that “IDF forces in the air, ground and sea are ready to renew the battle immediately,” as military chief Herzi Halevi approved a battle plan for after the ceasefire, saying: “We know what needs to be done, and are ready for the next stage.”
Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.