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A tentative four-day ceasefire between Israel and Hamas appears to have taken hold, setting the ground for the staggered release of 50 hostages held by Hamas and 150 Palestinian prisoners in Israel.
The Qatari-brokered ceasefire was set to begin at 7am on Friday. If it holds, the two sides will begin exchanging hostages, and humanitarian assistance — including much-needed fuel — will be allowed into the besieged enclave.
While neither side has officially announced the ceasefire to be in place, the Israel Defense Forces dropped leaflets into Gaza, warning Palestinians to remain south of the Israeli-ordered evacuation line. “The war has not ended. The humanitarian pause is temporary,” the flyers read.
The swap could result in the return of as many as 50 civilians captured from Israel during Hamas’s October 7 cross-border attack to their families. But it could collapse over various obstacles, including if a smaller militant group, the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, fails to abide by the ceasefire agreed between its Gazan rival and Israeli foe.
Qatar, which announced the ceasefire on Thursday, said the first 13 hostages would be handed over to Israeli authorities around 4pm on Friday. The families of the women and children have been informed that their names are on a list for release after 48 days of captivity.
They are expected to be exchanged for 39 Palestinian women and children held in Israeli prisons — some of whom have yet to be tried or convicted — a ratio of roughly three Palestinians for every hostage from Israel.
“The aim is for this deal to end with a lasting truce,” Majed Al-Ansari, spokesperson for Qatar’s foreign ministry, said at a press conference on Thursday.
A Hamas official said the Israeli hostages would be handed over to Egyptian authorities at the Rafah border crossing into Gaza, and the exchange would be carried out without media coverage.
The released hostages will first be examined by military doctors and then reunited with their families at civilian medical facilities, Israeli officials said.
The hostages are believed to be in good health, despite enduring Israel’s bombardment and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip alongside the territory’s 2.3mn residents. The Israeli operation has reduced much of Gaza to rubble and killed more than 13,300 people, according to Palestinian health officials.
Israel will continue to fight after the ceasefire, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday night.
“This fight is not about to end at the moment. It will end when it ends,” he said. “But we need to buy time — we are in a war; it will continue.”
Qatar on Thursday dispatched more than 40 tonnes of aid for Gaza, which it said would arrive “as soon as possible”. The UN is facilitating the transfer of “as much aid as possible”, a senior UN official said, and international humanitarian groups are rushing to prepare more.
Israel has tightly restricted deliveries of humanitarian aid into Gaza after ordering a complete siege of the enclave a day after last month’s Hamas attack, which killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials. Hospitals, sanitation and aid deliveries have nearly collapsed from the lack of fuel.
The increased deliveries are expected to include crucial fuel supplies. Hamas’s military wing said four trucks of fuel and cooking gas would be brought in each day for all areas of the strip. The UN’s Palestinian relief agency has previously said it needs 160,000 litres of fuel a day for basic humanitarian operations in the strip.
Israel has said it will extend the ceasefire by one day for every 10 additional hostages released. Israel estimates that at least 240 people are being held hostage, mostly by Hamas.
In the lead-up to the ceasefire, the Israeli army operated at great speed to capture more territory inside Gaza City, while air raid sirens rang out in Israel near the Gaza border on Friday morning.
The truce only covers Gaza, and fighting could continue on other fronts, including Israel’s border with Lebanon, where the Iran-backed militant group Hizbollah exchanged heavy fire with Israel on Thursday.
Abu Obeida, a spokesperson for Hamas’s military wing, called for “an escalation of confrontation with the occupation” in the West Bank and on other fronts.