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Hostages released by Hamas have returned to Israel, Israeli military says

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KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip -

Hamas militants on Saturday released 17 hostages, including 13 Israelis, from captivity in the Gaza Strip, while Israel freed 39 Palestinian prisoners in the latest stage of a four-day cease-fire.

The late-night exchange was held up for several hours after Hamas accused Israel of violating the agreement. The delay underscored the fragility of the cease-fire, which has halted a war that has shocked and shaken Israel, caused widespread destruction across the Gaza Strip, and threatened to unleash wider fighting across the region.

The war erupted on Oct. 7, when Hamas militants in Gaza burst across the border into southern Israel, killing at least 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducting some 240 others, including, women, children and older people. Israel immediately declared war, carrying out weeks of airstrikes and a ground offensive that have left over 13,300 Palestinians dead, according to health authorities in the Hamas-controlled territory. Roughly two-thirds of those killed in Gaza have been women and minors.

The cease-fire, brokered by Qatar and the United States, is the first extended break in fighting since the war began. Overall, Hamas is to release at least 50 Israeli hostages, and Israel 150 Palestinian prisoners. All are women and minors.

Israel has said the truce can be extended by an extra day for every additional 10 hostages freed, but has vowed to quickly resume its offensive and complete its goals of returning all hostages and destroying Hamas' military and governing capabilities.

The plight of the hostages has gripped the Israeli public's attention. Thousands of people gathered in central Tel Aviv on Saturday in solidarity with the hostages and their families. Many accuse Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of not doing enough to bring the hostages home. The releases have triggered mixed emotions: happiness, coupled with angst over the scores of hostages who remain in captivity.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced early Sunday that it had received a new list of hostages slated to be released later in the day in the third of four scheduled swaps.

In the West Bank, hundreds of people burst into wild celebrations for a second night as a busload of Palestinian prisoners arrived early Sunday. Teenage boys released in the deal were carried on the shoulders of well-wishers in the main square of the town of Al Bireh. But the mood of celebration was dampened by scenes of destruction and suffering in Gaza.

The start of the pause brought quiet for 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, who are reeling 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 also went silent.

War-weary Palestinians in northern Gaza, where the offensive has been focused, returned to the streets, crunching over rubble between shattered buildings and at times digging through it with bare hands.

At the Indonesian hospital in Jabaliya, besieged by the Israeli military earlier this month, bodies lay in the courtyard and outside the main gate.

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

He found the bodies of a cousin and nephew, bringing the death toll in the attack to 19. His sister and two other relatives are still missing.

"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 aid convoys on Oct. 21. It was also able to deliver 129,000 litres (about 35,000 gallons) of fuel -- just over 10 per cent of the daily pre-war volume -- as well as cooking gas, a first since the war began.

In the southern city of Khan Younis, a long line of people with containers waited outside a filling station. 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 Palestinian Red Crescent said 61 trucks carrying food, water and medical supplies headed there on Saturday, the largest aid convoy to reach the area yet. The UN said it and the Palestinian Red Crescent were also able to evacuate 40 patients and family members from a hospital in Gaza City to a hospital in Khan Younis.

This image composite shows the names of the Israeli hostages released on Nov. 25, 2023 by Hamas.

JOY AND EXPECTATION

The last-minute delay created a tense standoff on the second day of what's meant to be a four-day cease-fire. By nightfall, when hostages had been expected to emerge from Gaza, Hamas alleged that aid deliveries permitted by Israel fell short of what was promised and that not enough was reaching hard-hit northern Gaza. Hamas also said not enough longtime prisoners were freed in the first swap on Friday.

But Egypt, Qatar and Hamas itself later said the obstacles had been overcome.

Shortly before midnight, Hamas released the hostages -- 13 Israelis and four Thais. The Israelis were turned over to Egypt and then transferred to Israel, where they were taken to hospitals to be reunited with their families.

Hamas released a video showing the hostages appearing shaken but mostly in good physical condition as masked militants led them to Red Cross vehicles headed out of Gaza. Some of the hostages waved goodbye to the militants. One girl was on crutches and wore a cast on her left foot as she was escorted away.

The Israeli hostages included seven children and six women, Netanyahu's office announced. Most were from Kibbutz Be'eri, a community Hamas militants ravaged during their Oct. 7 cross-border attack. The children ranged in age from 3 to 16, and the women ranged from 18 to 67.

It was a bittersweet moment for the residents of Be'eri, who have been living in a Dead Sea hotel since their community was overrun. A kibbutz spokesperson said all the released hostages either had a family member killed in the Oct. 7 rampage or had left a loved one in captivity in Gaza.

The mother of one of the released hostages, 12-year-old Hila Rotem, remained in captivity, the spokesperson said. Another, Emily Hand, is a girl whose father believed her to be dead for weeks before finding out she was held as a hostage.

At their hotel, kibbutz residents gathered in a function room, cheering in excitement as they saw the first images of their loved ones being released on television.

PRISONERS RELEASED

Some of the Palestinian prisoners were released in east Jerusalem, while the bulk returned home to a hero's welcome in the occupied West Bank.

Among those released was Nurhan Awad, who was 17 in 2016 when she was sentenced to 13 1/2 years in jail for attempting to stab an Israeli soldier with a pair of scissors.

In Jerusalem, Israeli troops evicted journalists who gathered outside the home of Israa Jaabis, who had been imprisoned since 2015 after being convicted of carrying out a bombing attack that wounded an Israeli police officer, and left Jaabis with severe burns on her face and hands.

Jaabis later told reporters at her home that she is "ashamed to be happy at a time when Palestine is injured."

In Al Bireh, the teenage boys were paraded through the main square where they waved Palestinian flags as well as green banners of Hamas and yellow banners of the Fatah party of President Mahmoud Abbas. "May God make them strong. May God be with the Qassam Brigades," said one of the boys, referring to Hamas' military wing.

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

The war in Gaza has been accompanied by a surge in violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Late Saturday, Palestinian health authorities said four Palestinians were killed in an Israeli military raid in the northern West Bank city of Jenin, hours after another raid in the same area killed the local governor's 25-year-old son.

A 16-year-old Palestinian boy was also killed by Israeli fire near the city of Ramallah. The Israeli army, which frequently conducts military raids aimed at local militant groups, did not immediately comment.

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Magdy reported from Cairo and Mroue from Beirut. Federman and Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre and Julia Frankel reported from Jerusalem.

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