Eleven Israeli children and mothers were released from Hamas captivity Monday night, arriving in Israel after several hours of uncertainty over the fate of a deal for their freedom. They were freed amid ongoing intense diplomatic efforts to extend the four-day humanitarian pause in Gaza, which began on Friday, for two more days.
The group was originally slated to be the last of four scheduled groups of hostages freed as part of a deal for the release of 50 Israeli women and children kidnapped by the Hamas terror group on October 7. However, hours before they were transferred to the Red Cross, Qatar announced that a deal had been reached to extend the truce by two days, paving the way for 20 more hostages to be released. Israel had not confirmed this deal as of late Monday.
Israel agreed to free 150 Palestinians serving time in Israeli prison for security offenses as part of the initial truce, and released 33 women and young men to the West Bank and East Jerusalem on Monday night. A two-day extension may see another 60 inmates freed.
According to an Egyptian report, another six Thai citizens were also slated to be released from Hamas captivity in Gaza on Monday evening, as part of a separate agreement not involving Israel — but there was no word of any such transfer late Monday.
The eventual release capped a day of tensions, as Israel appeared to balk at an initial list of hostages to be released, the latest in a series of snags that have threatened to torpedo the truce and send the region hurtling back into full-blown war.
After they were handed over to the Red Cross in Gaza, two mothers and nine children were brought back to Israel, reportedly via the Kerem Shalom crossing with Israel — sidestepping a transfer in Egypt. Fathers of all five families with hostages released Monday are still being held in Gaza.
Among those freed were Sharon Aloni Cunio, 34, and her 3-year-old twin daughters Yuli and Emma Cunio. Husband and father David Cunio, 34, remains a hostage.
Once again, Hamas published propaganda footage showing the handover inside Gaza to the Red Cross, as the hostages were loaded into the aid group’s vans by armed terror operatives.
The Prime Minister’s Office said before 6 p.m. that families of those being released were notified, indicating that the previous issues with the list had been resolved. It did not say what the issues were, but the PMO said previously that it was “evaluating” the list of potential returnees.
Officials said the original Hamas list for Monday would have separated mothers from their children.
“Mothers were not originally going to be able to come out with their children,” US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Monday. “And that’s been resolved.”
According to Channel 13 news, two elderly women had initially been placed on the list instead of the mothers.
A Qatari source told the Reuters news agency that Hamas also had problems with the names on the list of Palestinian security prisoners set to be released by Israel as part of the deal.
All 11 hostages released Monday came from Kibbutz Nir Oz, including mother Karina Engel-Bart, 51, and daughters Mika, 18, and Yuval, 11. They were captured along with their father, Ronen, 54, who is still held hostage.
In the family’s last messages to relatives, they said that they were hiding in their sealed room, aware of what was taking place on the grounds of the kibbutz, before contact was lost.
Engel-Bart, a recent cancer survivor, holds Argentine citizenship. Footage showing Hamas handing the hostages over to the Red Cross appeared to show Yuval in a wheelchair with a cast on one of her legs.
Sahar Calderon, 16, and her brother Erez Calderon, 12, were also let go, though their father, Ofer Calderon, 53, remains a hostage. Mother Hadas Calderon, who is divorced from Ofer, has been a vocal campaigner for her children, standing vigil outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv every day. “These children are never away from me for more than two or three days,” she told reporters on a trip back to the destroyed kibbutz.
Brothers Or Yaakov, 16, and Yagil Yaakov, 13, were also set to be reunited with their mother, Renana Gome, whom they last spoke to in whispers from a safe room, as they hid from Hamas gunmen on October 7. The last thing Gome heard was her younger son, Yagil, saying, “Don’t take me, I’m too young.” Gome was then called by her sons’ abductors, who told her they had her sons.
Yagil Yaakov appeared in a propaganda video posted on November 9 by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group.
The boys’ father, Yair Yaakov, 59, and his girlfriend, Meirav Tal, 54, were also taken captive on October 7.
Eitan Yahalomi, 12, was initially taken captive with his mother and two sisters, but somehow they managed to escape and ran away, returning to Israel, as Eitan was carrying into Gaza on a moped.
Separately, Eitan’s father, Ohad, who was shot in a gun battle with the Hamas terrorists, was also apparently taken captive to Gaza, where he remains following Eitan’s release.
Not included among those released were members of the Bibas family, whose 9-month-old Kfir was kidnapped from Nir Oz along with his 4-year-old brother Ariel and parents Yarden, 34, and Shiri, 32, and whose release had been widely expected.
On X, IDF Arabic-language spokesman Avichai Adraee said the family had been taken by Hamas on October 7, but subsequently transferred to another Palestinian terror faction in Gaza. They are currently being held in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis. The message dampened hopes that they would be among the 20 hostages slated to be released in the coming days.
Also not included were two women holding American citizenship whose release the US has pushed for. On Sunday, US President Joe Biden feted the release of 4-year-old dual citizen Avigail Idan, saying “I wish I was there to hold her.”
Before Monday’s release, hours of delays had renewed fears that the shaky truce, in place since Friday, could fall apart prematurely. On Saturday, a dispute also threatened to scupper the agreement, with Qatar dispatching officials to Tel Aviv to salvage the deal, and hostages only arriving in Israel around midnight.
A planned release on Sunday night went off with few hitches, though one freed hostage, 84-year-old Elma Avraham, was medevacked to an Israeli hospital in critical condition.
Avraham’s daughter, Tali Amano, said her mother was “hours from death” when she was brought to the hospital. Avraham is currently sedated and has a breathing tube, but Amano said she told her of a new great-grandchild who was born while she was in captivity.
Avraham suffered from several chronic conditions that required regular medications, but was stable before she was kidnapped, Amano said Monday.
Others were in good condition and reacclimating to life outside of Gaza, sharing tearful hugs with family and friends. In Hod Hasharon, well-wishers lined streets, waving flags and celebrating as five freed members of the Haran-Avigdori-Shoham family made their way home after being discharged from the Edmond and Lily Safra Children’s Hospital at Sheba Medical Center.
— Tal Schneider טל שניידר تال شنايدر (@talschneider) November 27, 2023
Nine of 13 hostages treated there had been discharged by Monday evening, the hospital said, including Emily Hand, a 9-year-old initially feared dead, but later released from Hamas captivity.
Safra Children’s Hospital head Prof. Itai Pessach said the overall physical health of the 13 freed hostages treated there was good. All underwent extensive physical and mental health evaluations, and some have required medical treatment, he said.
“Seeing the hostages reunited with their families and the fact that they are recovering physically gives a sense of optimism,” Pessach said. “But given their difficult, complex stories of captivity, they will have a long way to go until they are [fully] healed.”