Prison authorities in Israel announced early on Sunday that they had released 39 Palestinian prisoners after Hamas freed 13 Israelis and four Thai nationals in the latest stage of a four-day ceasefire, The Guardian reported.
Television footage showed hostages on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing after leaving Gaza, as Hamas handed over the captives to the International Committee of the Red Cross late on Saturday.
Of the 13 Israelis released, six were women and seven were children and teenagers.
“The released hostages are on their way to hospitals in Israel, where they will reunite with their families,” the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said in a statement.
Emily Hand had her ninth birthday as a hostage in Gaza, the day before she was reunited with her father, who initially believed she had been killed in the attack by Hamas gunmen on southern Israel last month.
She appeared in good health in a photograph released with fellow hostage Hila Rotem, whose mother remains in Gaza.
The daughter of an Irish immigrant to Israel, Emily’s mother died of cancer when she was two years old and her family described the mix of feelings reported by other hostage families.
“We can’t find the words to describe our emotions after 50 challenging and complicated days,” her family said in a statement. “We are overjoyed to embrace Emily again, but at the same time, we remember Raya Rotem and all the hostages who have yet to return.”
Among the Palestinian prisoners released from two Israeli prisons, six were women and 33 were minors, the Palestinian news agency Wafa reported.
Some of those released arrived at Al-Bireh municipality square in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where thousands of citizens were waiting for them, according to a Reuters witness, according to The Guardian.
The Thai prime minister, Srettha Thavisin, has named the four Thai nationals released by Hamas, saying in a statement on X (formerly Twitter): “From the initial physical examination … everyone is healthy.”
Thailand’s ministry of foreign affairs has also increased the number of Thai nationals believed to be held hostage by two, meaning a further 18 Thais are still being held.
“The Thai government will continue to make every effort towards the safe release and return of those remaining Thai nationals,” the ministry said in a statement.
The Gaza ceasefire deal was plunged into crisis on Saturday after Hamas delayed a second hostage release and accused Israel of violating the truce agreement by blocking aid from reaching the northern part of the strip and flying drones in the south.
But late on Saturday Qatari negotiators said that the deal was back on course and that 13 Israeli hostages would be transferred in exchange for 39 Palestinian women and children held in Israeli jails. Seven other civilians, probably citizens of other countries working in the area, would also be released.
“After a delay in implementing the release of prisoners from both sides, the obstacles were overcome through Qatari-Egyptian communications with both sides,” said Dr Majed al-Ansari, official spokesperson for Qatar’s ministry of foreign affairs.
The delay was a reminder of how fragile the truce agreement is. Israel has vowed to resume its campaign to destroy Hamas after a brief pause, despite growing international pressure for a longer break in a campaign that has so far killed almost 15,000 Palestinians, the majority of them women and children.
The weekend had begun with some optimism that the four-day break in hostilities could be extended. Israel had made a unilateral offer to extend the ceasefire in return for more hostage releases, proposing an extra day for every 10 people freed.
A Qatari delegation made a rare trip to Israel to broker talks on the ground, Egypt said all sides had given “positive signals” about a longer pause in fighting, and US president Joe Biden said “the chances [of an extension] are real”.
Inside Israel, there was joy over the return of 13 hostages on Friday, including four children aged nine or younger who were seized by Hamas gunmen on 7 October, and endured 49 days in captivity. Video showed Ohad Munder, who turned nine in captivity, racing down a hospital corridor to hug his father.
Initially yesterday on Saturday there seemed to be a smooth path to further releases. Hamas had given ceasefire mediators Egypt and Qatar a list of another 14 hostages it planned to hand over, which was shared with Israel.
The truce agreement specifies that 50 hostages are to be exchanged over four days for 150 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, The Guardian reported.
About 240 people were kidnapped and taken to Gaza on 7 October, when Hamas broke through the border fence and launched an assault that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians. There are believed to be dozens of children among those still held.
But an expected afternoon transfer of hostages, through the Rafah border crossing to Egypt, did not go ahead. Hours later Hamas said it had delayed the release, and accused Israel of breaking both aid and military terms of the deal.
Hamas spokesperson Osama Hamdan said a total of 340 aid trucks had entered Gaza since Friday and that 65 of those trucks had reached northern Gaza, “which was less than half of what Israel agreed on”. A senior Hamas official told the BBC that Israel flew drones over southern Gaza, in a further violation of the deal.
Israel denied it had broken the terms of the truce. A military spokesperson declined to say what might follow if that deadline was not met, but one source close to the government said that if hostages were not released by midnight, Israel would start bombing Gaza again.
Egypt and Qatar raced to resolve the delay before it derailed the ceasefire. The Qatari diplomats who flew into Israel were an operations team; while they may have originally hoped to focus on extending the ceasefire, their brief was also thought to include keeping the deal on track.