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UPDATE: On third day of cease-fire, more Hamas hostages freed; Israel releases more Palestinians

People wait for a convoy carrying newly released hostages that were seized during the October 7 attack by Palestinian militant group Hamas and held in the Gaza Strip, in Ofakim, Israel, November 26, 2023. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

JERUSALEM (OSV News) — The Hamas militant group Nov. 26 released a third group of hostages numbering 17, who include 12 Israelis, one American woman and an Israeli-American child and three Thai nationals, according to The Associated Press, and Israel confirmed it freed another 39 Palestinians.

On Nov. 27, the last day of the cease-fire, “a fourth exchange is expected,” AP said, which would bring the total of freed hostages and freed Palestinian prisoners to 50 and 150, respectively, as agreed upon. Women and children make up each group.

According to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, the freed hostages in the third group range in age from 4 to 84 and include nine children. One of them is an Israeli-American child, Abigail Edan, who turned 4 in captivity. Her mother and father were gunned down in front of her by Hamas in their Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel killed in the Hamas attack that started the war. Abigail has two siblings who survived the attack by hiding in a closet.

Long days of delicate and intense negotiations between Israel and Hamas with the mediation of Qatar, Egypt and the U.S. led to the start of the hostage-Palestinian swap. As of Nov. 26, mediators are trying to extend the cease-fire, AP reported.

The first hostage group, released late afternoon Nov. 24, included 13 Israeli civilians — four children, three mothers and six other women — as well as 10 Thai and one Filipino. Their release was followed by the first group of 39 Palestinians freed by the Israelis.

On the second day of the hostage-Palestinian exchange Nov. 25, Hamas initially delayed the exchange, claiming “that the aid deliveries permitted by Israel fell short of what was promised,” according to AP. But through mediation, Hamas ultimately released the second group that evening — 13 Israelis and four Thai nationals — and later that night Israel released 39 Palestinians to the militant group. The freed Israelis were eight children and five women.

The first two groups of hostages, who were held in Gaza, were transferred to Egypt in Red Cross vehicles and then transported to Israel. In the third group, some hostages “were handed over directly to Israel, while others left through Egypt,” AP reported. According to the Israeli army, one was airlifted “directly to a hospital.”

Hospitals in Israel prepared to receive the released hostages, and the media was asked to respect the privacy of families whose loved ones were to be released.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Nov. 24 that “137 trucks of goods were offloaded” at a reception point in Gaza operated by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees. “Humanitarian teams from the U.N. and partners will continue to ramp up humanitarian operations to meet the needs of people throughout Gaza in the coming days,” the OCHA statement said.

The agreement between Israel and Hamas, originally scheduled to take place Nov. 23, was postponed for a day because Hamas had not yet presented a list of prisoners to be released.

According to the agreement at least 50 Israeli hostages — civilian women and children under age 19 — among the about 240 kidnapped by Hamas in their Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel will be released in batches over four days, during which there will be a pause in the fighting. The release of every additional 10 hostages will result in one additional day in the pause.

In the exchange, Israel also will allow fuel, medicine and other humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip and will release at least 150 Palestinians — also women and children. The list includes teenagers detained over the past year for rock-throwing and other minor offenses, but also those held in Israeli prisons convicted of murder attempts against Israelis.

On Nov. 22, the pope met with families of Israeli hostages, and later with the families of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. The Assembly of Italian Rabbis published a letter following the meeting criticizing the format of parallel meetings, saying that it unjustly put “innocents” who have been “torn from their families” in the Hamas terrorist attack on the same level as families with people often convicted of “very serious acts of terrorism.”

“And soon after, the Pope publicly accused both sides of terrorism,” the rabbis wrote, voicing their confusion over Pope Francis’ words: “This is what wars do. But here we have gone beyond wars. This is not war. This is terrorism.”

As the war in Gaza neared its 50th day, the destruction in the enclave is “simply unimaginable,” said Latin Patriarchate CEO Sami El-Yousef in a letter of reflection published on the website of the Latin Patriarchate Nov. 20. He noted that as of its writing the U.N. had said over 11,000 Palestinians had been killed in Israeli retaliatory strikes as it vowed to destroy Hamas infrastructure following the Hamas attack, and some 1.6 million people — almost 70% of the Gaza population — have been displaced.

Between 150,000 and 200,000 Israelis also have been evacuated from the southern and northern borders as Hamas and Hezbollah continue to lob rockets and missiles into Israel.

El-Yousef said the internally displaced Palestinians in Gaza were without a proper mechanism to care for their basic needs and most hospitals are not functioning because of the lack of electricity, fuel and medicines.

“Gazans are on the brink of starvation, dehydration, and disease outbreaks given the thousands of bodies rotting under the rubble; the start of the winter season; and the lack of any hygiene with 700 people sharing a shower and 500 people sharing a toilet,” he wrote.

He said some 600 people had taken refuge inside the Holy Family Parish complex located in northern Gaza, although Israel has asked that all Palestinians evacuate to the south.

“That is a huge responsibility to provide for their daily needs at a time of war and at a time when no new supplies are coming to the north,” he said.

The Christian community in Gaza has lost 21 people so far — over 2% of the Christian population.

Israel has maintained that Hamas embeds its weapons and members within the civilian population and near sensitive locations such as hospitals and schools. Over the past week the IDF has taken foreign and Israeli TV reporters into Gaza to see the complex network of tunnels they uncovered underneath the main Al Shifa Hospital they say were used by Hamas terrorists.

El-Yousef said all Christian families in Gaza have been affected by the war, and the homes of over 50 families from the community have been destroyed.

He emphasized that the “Christian message of forgiveness, coexistence, tolerance, love, and peace does not change during times of war.”

“It is critical that this message continues to guide our society so that some tracks can be found to move forward to reach justice and peace for all who call the Holy Land home,” he said. “Humanity must return and all children of God regardless of their religion or nationality should be treated equally with dignity.”

Judith Sudilovsky writes for OSV News from Jerusalem.

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