Joy and Pain at Outset of Four-day Pause and Prisoner Exchange
Maureen Clare Murphy
25 November 2023
Newly released Palestinian prisoners arrive to Beitunia, west of the West Bank city of Ramallah, in International Committee of the Red Cross vehicles at the outset of a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, 24 November. Mohammad TamimUPI
Friday marked the first day of a four-day pause in hostilities agreed to by Hamas and Israel after nearly 50 days of intense attacks that have destroyed wide swathes of Gaza and killed at least 14,800 Palestinians, around 6,000 of them children.
Thousands more Palestinians in Gaza are reported missing under the rubble of destroyed buildings.
On Friday, Hamas freed 24 people held captive in Gaza since 7 October and Israel released 39 Palestinian women and children in the first stage of a prisoner swap that will be implemented over the next few days.
“Under the deal, Hamas is to release at least 50 hostages, and Israel 150 Palestinian prisoners over the four days,” the AP news agency reported.
“Both sides were starting with women and children. Israel said the four-day truce can be extended an extra day for every additional 10 hostages freed.”
Israel is currently holding more than 8,000 Palestinians in its prisons and detention centers, including some 2,200 administrative detainees held without charge or trial. Around 3,000 Palestinans, including 145 children, 95 women and 37 journalists, have been arrested by Israel since 7 October.
An estimated 240 people captured in Israel on 7 October are being held in Gaza. Thirteen Israeli women and children and 10 Thai farmworkers and a citizen of the Philippines were also released on Friday.
The Thai workers “were released in a separate deal from the ceasefire that had not been previously reported,” according to Reuters.
Despite the agreement to pause hostilities, Israeli forces shot and killed two Palestinians and injured others who were attempting to return to the north of Gaza from the south.
AP reported that the Israeli military had “dropped leaflets on southern Gaza saying that returning to northern Gaza is prohibited and dangerous.”
The Israeli government line is that people attempting to return north are being forced by Hamas to do so.
That narrative has been adapted by some media outlets, including Forbes, which framed displaced Palestinians attempting to return to their homes in Gaza City and the north as a “tactic” devised by Hamas to disrupt Israel’s military campaign.
The reality is that people are quitting the often overcrowded and squalid shelters in which they have been staying and voluntarily returning to their homes.
Al Jazeera published video showing thousands of people streaming back to northern Gaza on Friday, despite Israeli threats.
The AP news agency said that “Israel’s northern border with Lebanon was also quiet on Friday,” one day after Hizballah, which is not party to the agreement to pause hostilities, “carried out the highest number of attacks in one day since fighting there began” on 8 October.
Cooking gas enters Gaza
International humanitarian agencies sought to take advantage of the four-day pause to ramp up aid to Gaza, which is reeling from humanitarian catastrophe after Israel cut off deliveries of water, electricity, fuel, food and medical supplies to the territory at the outset of its offensive.
Israel’s military attacks have rendered several hospitals in the northern half of Gaza, including al-Shifa, the largest health facility in the territory, inoperable. Israeli forces withdrew from both the Indonesian hospital in northern Gaza and al-Shifa in Gaza City on Friday, but not before destroying generators and other equipment and infrastructure.
Nearly 80 percent of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents, most of whom are already refugees, have been displaced in the past seven weeks, and 46,000 housing units in the territory have been destroyed.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that the world body “was able to scale up the delivery of humanitarian assistance into and across Gaza” on the first day of the “humanitarian pause.”
The UN office said that “200 trucks were dispatched from Nitzana,” where aid destined to Gaza is undergoing Israeli military inspection, “to the Rafah crossing” on the border with Egypt.
Prior to 7 October, most aid entered Gaza via Israel and the Karem Abu Salem (Kerem Shalom) crossing, but that checkpoint has been closed by Israel since then.
Aid agencies have pleaded for Karem Abu Salem to be opened to facilitate an increase of deliveries to Gaza. Rafah crossing was built for the movement of people rather than goods, and aid groups say that bringing aid via Egypt’s Sinai, as well as Israeli inspections at Nitzana crossing, are adding to their time and expenses.
The director of the human rights group Doctors of the World told the Tel Aviv daily Haaretz that the four-day pause was “a joke,” calling it “humanitarian-washing.”
UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, offloaded 137 trucks of goods on Friday, “making it the biggest humanitarian convoy received since 7 October,” according to OCHA, which added that “129,000 liters of fuel and four trucks of gas also crossed into Gaza.”
OCHA said that it was the first transfer of cooking gas to Gaza since 7 October.
Meanwhile, “21 critical patients were evacuated in a large-scale medical operation from the north of Gaza,” OCHA said, and “hundreds of thousands of people were assisted with food, water, medical supplies and other essential humanitarian items.”
Palestinians in Gaza used the beginning of the four-day pause to recover and bury the dead recovered from under the rubble of destroyed buildings and those killed along the north-south arterial along which Israel forcibly transferred people in northern Gaza to the south.
Many attempted to return to or check on their homes, finding much of what they knew and loved to now be destroyed.
Many people received news of friends, family members and colleagues killed in Gaza, including writer Mohammed Hamo, who was a contributor to The Electronic Intifada.
Release of Israeli and Thai captives
The Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, released a video showing the transfer of detainees to the International Committee of the Red Cross on Friday.
The video shows men who appear to be the released Thai nationals being assisted out of a van by a masked Qassam member in military uniform before they are escorted by people wearing ICRC vests.
The footage shows a young boy wearing a Spiderman baseball cap being picked up and loaded into an ICRC vehicle by a Qassam member and an older woman being carried in the arms of a Qassam member.
The video, published without audio, depicts a crowd of Palestinians at the scene, many of whom are holding up their phones to document the event, some of them making the V for victory signs with their hands as the captives are transferred to the ICRC.
Another video showing the departure of the released captives shows one of them waving farewell to the crowd of Palestinians that had gathered as the ICRC convoy made its way to Rafah crossing with Egypt.
Israel’s Channel 12 said that upon completing a medical examination, the released captives will be isolated at hospitals and the adults will undergo a security investigation by Shin Bet personnel.
The network added that the released captives will not be banned from giving media interviews but “they are expected to receive close supervision, and they will be instructed on what is true tell the media and what is not.”
After two older Israeli women were released by Hamas last month, and one of them described being treated well by “friendly” captors, some in Israel viewed this as “a major Israeli misstep and a propaganda victory for Hamas,” as The Times of Israel lamented.
Meanwhile in Gaza, the pause in Israel’s incessant bombardment gave surviving Palestinians journalists a chance for a joyful reunion with their families and to take a rest after working nonstop and in perilous conditions.
Palestinian prisoners released on Friday were also received by their families with tears of joy.
The Palestinian women released on Friday received a hero’s welcome by an overjoyed crowd as they took their first steps of freedom.
Israel seemingly sought to avoid such scenes, with a 17-year-old freed detainee telling reporters that he was told that Israel would arrest him again if he was given a celebratory reception.
US President Joe Biden – who is being sued by Palestinians for failing to prevent the genocide unfolding in Gaza, and for his complicity in genocide – said that the beginning of the four-day pause and the release of 13 Israeli captives “was only a start, but so far it’s gone well.”
Biden made no acknowledgement of the Palestinians released on Friday, including children held without charge or trial.
He made several disparaging remarks about Hamas and made no mention of Israel’s carpet bombing of Gaza and the unprecedented death toll among Palestinians.
In response to a reporter’s question, Biden said he encouraged Netanyahu to “focus on trying to reduce the number of casualties while he is attempting to eliminate Hamas, which is a legitimate objective.”
Biden’s response is an indication that his administration is giving Israel plenty of runway to continue the genocide unfolding in Gaza and potentially force a mass expulsion of Palestinians from the territory, as sought by many in the government and political establishment.
“I don’t know how long it will take,” Biden said of the war. “My expectation and hope is that as we move forward, the rest of the Arab world and the region is also putting pressure on all sides to slow this down, to bring this to an end as quickly as we can.”
In response to a question about pressure within the Democratic party to condition aid to Israel, Biden said, “I think that’s a worthwhile thought, but I don’t think if I started off with that, we’d have gotten to where we are today.”
Biden claimed on Friday that “Hamas doesn’t give a damn” about the innocent Palestinians “who are suffering greatly because of this war.” He emphasized a two-state solution and indicated that the US would press on with brokering normalization deals between Israel and despotic Arab states.
A crowd in Ramallah, the seat of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, had a very different message on Friday.
A crowd receiving some of the released prisoners chanted in support of Abu Obeida, the spokesperson for the armed wing of Hamas, and its head Muhammad Deif, thanking the resistance in Gaza for securing their freedom.