The release of some 50 Israeli hostages — children, their mothers, and other women — held by Hamas will begin Thursday at 10 a.m., a senior Israeli official told reporters on Wednesday evening.
Israel on Wednesday evening received the list of hostages to be freed on Thursday, according to Hebrew media reports. A US official told reporters on Tuesday that Hamas produced a list with identifying information about the 50 women and children it plans to release over the coming days.
The Israeli official confirmed in a briefing that hostages will be released in groups of 12-13 people, and that Hamas has committed to release 50 hostages in the next four days. Channel 12 news reported that Thursday’s release window can extend until 4 p.m.
If completed, the deal for a swap of hostages for Palestinian prisoners, along with a pause in the hostilities, would be the biggest diplomatic breakthrough since Hamas initiated war nearly seven weeks earlier, when its members rampaged through southern Israel on October 7 and massacred some 1,200 people, most of them civilians. On the same day, more than 240 were abducted to the Gaza Strip by the terror group and other Palestinian factions.
As detailed by Israel’s cabinet, the deal set to unfold from Thursday would trade a total of 50 living Israeli hostages for a four-day lull in fighting and the release of up to 150 Palestinian female and underage prisoners. It would also enable an influx of fuel and humanitarian supplies to Gaza during the pause. If Hamas is able to locate additional hostages who are either minors or female non-combatants to release, the deal can be extended to up to 10 days, with one extra day’s pause in the fighting for every 10 hostages released. Three additional Palestinian prisoners would be released for each hostage freed.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the senior Israeli official added that Israel believes that Hamas’s main interest in the negotiations was to maximize the duration of the pause in hostilities, and that fuel and humanitarian aid are not Hamas’s central concern.
Initially, the official said, Hamas wanted a month-long halt in the fighting, but reduced its demands to four days. Nonetheless, the official added, extending the pause beyond four days is a central goal of Hamas.
Since Hamas would like to extend the pause by a few more days, there is a chance that a total of 80 kidnapped children and women directly held by the terror group will be released under the provisions of the deal, the official said.
Regarding the daily number of releases, the senior official noted that Hamas is bound by the agreement to release 50 hostages within four days, with no fewer than 10 hostages per day of halted fighting. Thus, if Hamas hands over only 10 hostages per day in the first three days, Hamas would have to make up the numbers to reach a total of 50 by the fourth day.
According to Israeli estimates, Hamas holds a total of 98 women and children, 40 of whom are under the age of 19. At first, Hamas had more than 100 living women and children, but after the murders of Yehudit Weiss and Noa Marciano in captivity, that number dropped. In addition, the terror group released four women, and a fifth was liberated in a daring Israeli military operation.
Among the 98 women and children, there are five female soldiers in active service who are not included in the deal.
The source also said that beyond the potential maximum of 80 women and children that might be released in the coming days, Hamas has to “collect” women and children from elsewhere in the Strip to potentially be released in subsequent exchanges. That is why Israel agreed to not gather overhead drone intelligence for six hours every day during the truce, enabling Hamas and its operatives to gather women and children hostages from different locations across the Strip.
On Tuesday, Israeli officials briefed reporters that Israel would not face a complete intelligence blackout during the windows during which it cannot fly sorties, as other, unspecified intelligence gathering mechanisms are in place.
The first group of hostages are to be transferred on Thursday to the International Red Cross and possibly to other unspecified parties. They will then be handed over to Israel via one of Gaza’s international border crossings, said the senior official.
Upon receiving proof that the hostages released are the Israeli citizens specifically agreed upon, Israel will release its agreed-upon group of Palestinian prisoners.
Given concerns that Hamas may not release the specific hostages it promises to release, Israel has decided not to inform the relevant families that their loved ones are expected to be freed on Thursday, the senior official said.
After being received on the Israeli side, the former hostages will be given a brief medical examination and then flown to hospitals, the official added, where they are to be reunited with their families.
US negotiation pressure on Qatar
The US exerted significant pressure over Qatar to improve Israel’s hostage release deal terms, the senior official said.
US President Joe Biden sent CIA chief William Burns to Qatar in order to quash a Hamas demand to designate all Israeli women under 50 as soldiers, and pushed Qatar for Hamas to agree instead to use that classification only for the five women soldiers in active duty who are held by the terror group, the official said.
Additionally, the requirement for the International Red Cross to visit all remaining hostages is a binding element of the deal, the official said, and the US, Egypt, and Qatar will apply pressure to ensure it is honored.
The entire deal, the official added, is not formalized on a signed document, but rather was ratified by mutual announcement — by Israel to the US, and Hamas to Qatar.
With the deal making provisions for the return of up to 80 hostages, it would leave at least 160 or so hostages remaining in Gaza after its terms are completed.
Total hostage numbers are not final because Israel believes eight people are still missing nearly seven weeks after Hamas rampaged through southern Israel on October 7, including two foreign nationals and six Israeli citizens.
Israel fears that Hamas may violate the agreed halt in fighting, and fire upon soldiers in areas of northern Gaza controlled by the IDF, the senior Israeli official said.
Were soldiers to come under fire, they would be permitted to return fire, said the official, but Israel will attempt not to initiate military action.
The official said that Hamas has weak control in northern Gaza and may not be able to exert authority over all terrorists in that area.
Therefore, Israel will carefully weigh how to respond to any truce violations on a case-by-case basis, mindful of the ongoing imperative to ensure that the release of hostages proceeds. Soldiers will confront any direct threat, while making the effort not to take actions that could be interpreted as breaching the agreement.
Israel intends to use the pause in fighting in order to plan for the war’s next steps, including to ensure as many hostages as possible are brought home, the official said.
Israel’s war cabinet has pledged to continue its operation — with the declared aims of destroying Hamas and securing the return of all hostages — after the pause in fighting lapses.