AP/ PTI

Gaza cease-fire enters second day with more hostages to be exchanged and critical supplies delivered

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Khan Younis:  Hamas was expected to swap more of its hostages on Saturday for prisoners held by Israel on the second day of a cease-fire that has allowed critical humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip and given civilians their first respite after seven weeks of war.

On the first day of the four-day cease-fire, Hamas released 24 of the about 240 hostages taken during its October 7 attack on Israel that triggered the war, and Israel freed 39 Palestinians from prison. Those freed from captivity in Gaza were 13 Israelis, 10 Thai nationals and a citizen of the Philippines.

Under the agreement, Hamas will release one Israeli hostage for every three prisoners freed. Israel’s Prison Service said Saturday it was preparing 42 prisoners for release, suggesting Hamas would release 14 Israeli hostages. There has been no official Israeli announcement on the number of hostages to be freed Saturday, though Hamas handed a list of names to the authorities late Friday.

It was not immediately clear how many non-Israeli captives may also be released.

During the four days, Hamas is to release at least 50 Israeli hostages, and Israel 150 Palestinian prisoners, all woman and minors.

Israel has said the truce can be extended an extra day for every additional 10 hostages freed — something United States President Joe Biden said he hoped would come to pass.

The start of the truce Friday morning brought the first quiet for 2.3 million Palestinians reeling and desperate from relentless Israeli bombardment that has killed thousands, driven three-quarters of the population from their homes and leveled residential areas. Rocket fire from Gaza militants into Israel went silent as well.

For Emad Abu Hajer, a resident of the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza City area, the pause Friday meant he could again dig through the rubble of his home, which was flattened in an Israeli attack last week.

He found the bodies of a cousin and nephew, bring the death toll in the attack to 19. With his sister and two other relatives still missing, he resumed his digging Saturday.

“We want to find them and bury them in dignity,” he said.

The United Nations said the pause enabled it to scale up the delivery of food, water, and medicine to the largest volume since the resumption of humanitarian aid convoys on October 21. It was also able to deliver 129,000 liters (34,078 gallons) of fuel — just over 10 per cent of the daily pre-war volume — as well as cooking gas, a first time since the war began.

In the southern city of Khan Younis on Saturday, a long line of people with gas cans and other containers waited outside a filling station hoping to get some of the newly delivered fuel.

As he waited for fuel, Hossam Fayad lamented that the pause in fighting was only for four days.

“I wish it could be extended until people’s conditions improved,” he said.

For the first time in over a month, aid reached northern Gaza, the focus of Israel’s ground offensive. A U.N. convoy delivered flour to two facilities sheltering people displaced by fighting.

The UN said it and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society were also able to evacuate 40 patients and family members from a hospital in Gaza City, where much of the fighting has taken place, to a hospital in Khan Younis.

The relief brought by the cease-fire has been tempered, however, for both sides — among Israelis by the fact that not all hostages will be freed and among Palestinians by the brevity of the pause. The short truce leaves Gaza mired in humanitarian crisis and under the threat that fighting could soon resume.

Amal Abu Awada, a 40-year-old widow who fled a Gaza City-area camp for Khan Younis with her three children earlier in November, ventured out Friday to a UN facility looking for food and water, but said there was none available.

“We went back empty handed,” she said. “But at least there are no bombs, and we can try again.”

Israel has vowed to resume its massive offensive once the truce ends. That has clouded hopes that the deal could eventually help wind down the conflict, which has fueled a surge of violence in the occupied West Bank and stirred fears of a wider conflagration across the Middle East.

After nightfall Friday, a line of ambulances emerged from Gaza through the Rafah Crossing into Egypt carrying the freed hostages. The freed Israelis included nine women and four children 9 and under.

The released hostages were taken to three Israeli hospitals for observation. The Schneider Children’s Medical Center said it was treating eight Israelis — four children and four women — and that all appeared to be in good physical condition. The center said they were also receiving psychological treatment, adding that “these are sensitive moments” for the families.

At a plaza dubbed “Hostages Square” in Tel Aviv, a crowd of Israelis celebrated at the news.

The hostages included multiple generations. Nine-year-old Ohad Munder-Zichri was freed along with his mother, Keren Munder, and grandmother, Ruti Munder. The fourth-grader was abducted during a holiday visit to his grandparents at the kibbutz where about 80 people — nearly a quarter of all residents of the small community — are believed to have been taken from.

The plight of the hostages has raised anger among some families that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not doing enough to bring them home.

Hours later, 24 Palestinian women and 15 teenage boys held in Israeli prisons in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem were freed. In the West Bank town of Beitunia, hundreds of Palestinians poured out of their homes to celebrate, honking horns and setting off fireworks that lit up the night sky.

The teenagers had been jailed for minor offenses like throwing stones. The women included several convicted of trying to stab Israeli soldiers, and others who had been arrested at checkpoints in the West Bank.

According to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, an advocacy group, Israel is currently holding 7,200 Palestinians, including about 2,000 arrested since the start of the war.

The war erupted when several thousand Hamas militants stormed into southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking scores of hostages, including babies, women and older adults, as well as soldiers.

Majed al-Ansari, a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry of Qatar, said the hope is that momentum from the deal will lead to an end to the violence. Qatar served as a mediator along with the US and Egypt.

But hours before it came into effect, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told troops that their respite would be short and that the war would resume with intensity for at least two more months.

Netanyahu has also vowed to continue the war to destroy Hamas’ military capabilities, end its 16-year rule in Gaza and return all the hostages.

The Israeli offensive has killed more than 13,300 Palestinians, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-run Gaza government. Women and minors have consistently made up around two-thirds of the dead, though the latest number was not broken down. The figure does not include updated numbers from hospitals in the north, where communications have broken down.

The ministry says some 6,000 people have been reported missing, feared buried under rubble. The ministry does not differentiate between civilians and militants in its death tolls.

Israel says it has killed thousands of Hamas fighters, without presenting evidence for its count.

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