Fifty hostages, including dozens of children, will be released from captivity in Gaza after a deal was reached between Israel and Hamas – marking a major breakthrough after weeks of fraught negotiations.
Under the agreement, which was brokered by Qatar and the US, at least 50 Israeli civilians – including the children and their mothers – will be released via Egypt during a four-day pause in hostilities.
The Independent understands that there will also be an exchange of Palestinian women and children held in Israeli prisons but details were not yet finalised.
Diplomatic sources told The Independent this deal can be expanded to see the release of 85 women and children in total. Sources said Israel is willing to extend the much-needed humanitarian ceasefire by a day for every 10 additional hostages released by Hamas. The first release of hostages is expected on Thursday.
A senior US administration official said that the text of the deal runs to five or six pages and that the pause in military activity contained within would result in “a real surge in humanitarian supplies.” The official added that three US citizens — a three-year-old girl and two women — are expected to be included in the release.
The US official said that the process towards a deal has been “gut-wrenching” – and it has been long and fraught. Many attempted agreements have “fallen at the last hurdle” according to those close to the negotiations.
At least 240 people, including the elderly, sick, and children – the youngest just 10 months old – have been held in Gaza since 7 October when Hamas militants launched an unprecedented attack on southern Israel killing 1,200 people. Among the captives are believed to be at least two British citizens, 10 Americans, and Israeli soldiers.
In retaliation, Israel has launched its heaviest bombardment ever of the Hamas-controlled strip – which health authorities in the enclave say has killed more than 14,000 people including 5,600 children.
The intense bombing and a ground operation into Gaza have increasingly worried families of the hostages who fear their loved ones may be killed in the fighting. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said part of the deal agreed includes visits by the Red Cross to hostages who have not yet been released, as well as the supply of medicine.
But Mr Netanyahu said Israel will continue its war against Hamas, even with a temporary ceasefire. "We are at war and we will continue the war until we achieve all our goals. To destroy Hamas, return all our hostages, and ensure that nobody in Gaza can threaten Israel," he said. The Israeli prime minister said the intervention of US President Joe Biden had helped to improve the tentative agreement so that it included more hostages and fewer concessions to Hamas.
Among the stumbling blocks has been Israel's concerns that a ceasefire will be used by Hamas militants to regroup. The other issue is the location and access to the hostages. The Independent understands Israel believes dozens are being directly held by Hamas, but there could be more 150 hostages being held by Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other militant groups in the strip.
There have been splits in the Israeli cabinet over a deal – with some of Mr Netanyahu’s hardline coalition partners opposing some of the terms of the deal. But in the end it was not enough to stop it being agreed. Mr Netanyahu acknowledged that the cabinet faced a tough decision, but supporting the truce was the right thing to do.
Israeli officials initially publicly dismissed deals involving a ceasefire saying they want the “unconditional and immediate release of all the hostages”. However, Mr Netanyahu has come under increasing pressure from the families of the hostages who have expressed concerns that that the primary objective is a military one in Gaza not to secure the quickest release of their loved ones. Pressure has further mounted on the Israeli authorities after the Israeli military announced they had found the bodies of two female hostages.
On Tuesday there was hope and relief among the relatives of those held captive who have gathered for multiple weeks in what is now known as “hostage square” in central Tel Aviv to demand the immediate release of their loved ones.
Gil Dickmann, a cousin of Carmel Gat, 39, who was abducted by Hamas from Kibbutz Berri near Gaza, has taken a lead role representing the families in their fight for a hostage deal and has even appeared in the Knesset to directly appeal to lawmakers.
Speaking to The Independent as the deal was being finalised, he said the families were “nervous but mostly optimistic”.
“We know we’re not going to see all the hostages coming home right now, but it feels as if this deal opens the door to the next deal,” he said.
“The most important thing in such matters is trust. Having a deal signed and completed is a very important sign for optimism for the next deals.
“What could go wrong is that the deal will collapse midway but of course, we are not going to stop until they all come back home.”
This was a concern raised by diplomatic sources involved in the talks. The ceasefire is expected to be used as a pathway to work on further negotiations and the release of more hostages. This could be scuppered if either side violates terms of the truce.
There were also concerns about Israel’s northern border with Lebanon where there have been intense exchanges of fire with Lebanon militant group Hezbollah , a staunch ally of Hamas. On Tuesday in southern Lebanon, an Israeli strike killed two journalists with Al-Mayadeen TV, according to the Hezbollah-allied Pan-Arab network and Lebanese officials. There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military.
Israel's offensive on Gaza has caused widespread destruction and displaced more than 1.7 million people, according to Palestinian health authorities. The frontline of the war has shifted to the Jabalia refugee camp, a dense warren of concrete buildings near Gaza City in the north of the enclave that houses families displaced in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Israel has bombarded the area for weeks, and the military said Hamas fighters have regrouped there and in other eastern districts after being pushed out of much of Gaza City.
Israel's chief military spokesperson, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, said forces had continued operations through the day in Gaza and completed an encirclement of Jabalia, "which is a significant combat area", adding that troops had also "deepened combat" in the nearby Zeitoun district of Gaza City.
He said the army was focused on fighting and the deal with Hamas would not affect its gains in Gaza, where Israel says it now controls much of the north.
"The military will know how to maintain its military achievements in Gaza while preparing for the next stages of the war," Hagari told a televised briefing on Tuesday evening.
The fighting in Jabalia has raged around two nearby hospitals, trapping hundreds of patients and displaced people sheltering inside.
A strike on Tuesday hit inside one of the facilities, al-Awda, killing four people, including three doctors, the hospital director told Al-Jazeera TV.
Israel has said in recent days it would focus its attentions on south of Gaza. John Kirby, US National Security Council spokesperson, said that Washington did not support Israel's planned offensive south if they do not have a "cohesive plan" to protect the civilian population that evacuated from the north.
"It's even more incumbent upon the Israelis to make sure before they begin operations down there that they have factored in ways in which they can protect those civilians who have moved at their urging to the south.”
Andrew Feinberg contributed to this story