A truce between Israel and Hamas that was scheduled to begin at 7 a.m. local time (12 a.m. ET) Friday is believed to be holding, with civilian hostages held captive by militants expected to be released in the coming hours as part of a breakthrough diplomatic deal following an uneasy day-long delay.
The pause in fighting, part of the carefully negotiated agreement announced Wednesday, appeared to be taking effect despite what sounded like sporadic Israeli artillery fire and sirens warning of rockets from Gaza in the minutes after it was due to begin.
CNN journalists in the southern Israel city of Sderot said the sounds of heavy weapons fire stopped around 7:18 a.m. local time (12:18 a.m. ET).
They heard what sounded like small arms fire inside Gaza about 20 minutes later, but artillery fire, airstrikes and rockets appear to have stopped.
At least 90 aid trucks have so far entered Gaza through the Rafah border crossing on Friday, an Egyptian official at the border told CNN, carrying desperately needed supplies to ease a humanitarian crisis that’s worsened each day of Israel’s blockade of the enclave. They were among the 200 aid trucks that had entered the Egyptian side of the crossing on Friday morning, the official said.
Two hundred trucks “loaded with food, medicine and water,” as well as others transporting fuel would cross into the Gaza Strip each day starting Friday, Diaa Rashwan, the chairman of Egypt’s State Information Service said that morning.
Sixty-seven Palestinians who got stuck in Egypt during the war traveled back into Gaza via the Rafah border crossing on Friday, hours after the truce went into effect. More Palestinians will be allowed to cross into the Strip starting Saturday if they wish to do so, the Palestinian embassy in Cairo said.
The first hostage release from Gaza is scheduled to take place later Friday, when 13 women and children held captive in Gaza are expected to be freed, mediators in Qatar said the previous day. Thirty-nine Palestinian prisoners would also be released by Israel Friday as part of the deal, according to an Israeli official.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it has completed preparations for receiving hostages released from Gaza back into Israel, including readying several locations with medical provisions and support for their initial reception.
The implementation of the four-day truce would mark the first sustained break in hostilities after nearly seven weeks of conflict – and the first expected large-scale release of hostages.
The agreement followed mounting pressure on the Israeli government from the families of the hostages, who have demanded answers and action from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It also comes amid growing international pressure for more humanitarian support for the people of Gaza, where the number of people killed since October 7 now stands at 14,854, according to information from Hamas authorities in the Strip.
Israel declared war on Hamas following the militant group’s bloody October 7 terror attack on its territory, in which more than 1,200 people were killed – the largest such attack on Israel since the country’s founding in 1948.
Militants are holding more than 200 people captive inside Gaza from mass abductions that day, according to figures from the Israeli military.
The IDF said Friday that they destroyed a number of tunnels underneath the Al-Shifa Hospital area in Gaza City they believe are used by Hamas and completed “operational preparations” according to the agreed truce, ahead of its anticipated start.
Israel’s defense minister said he expects the military operation against Hamas will continue “forcefully” after the truce.
Expected hostage release
Under terms previously announced by Qatar, a total of 50 of those hostages, women and children, are expected to be freed over a four-day humanitarian pause in fighting.
The first batch of hostages is expected to be released from Gaza at around 4 p.m. local time Friday and handed to the International Committee of the Red Cross, Qatar Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majid Al-Ansari said Thursday ahead of the pause.
American citizens are not expected to be among the first group of hostages released, a US official told CNN. The official added that they remain hopeful that there will be Americans among the initial 50.
An Israeli government official told CNN Thursday the hostages, most of whom are expected to be children with their mothers, will enter Israel at three different locations, which are not being publicized due to the sensitive nature of the release.
Israel’s Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs has released detailed instructions on how to care for released hostages who are children, advising IDF troops on how to interact with them in the moments following their release.
“Children will ask questions such as, ‘Where’s Mum? Where’s Daddy?’ Soldiers should not answer these questions, even if they know the answers. Any questions should be answered along the lines of, ‘Sweetheart, I’m sorry, I don’t know. My job is to bring you to Israel to a safe place, where people you know will be waiting for you and will answer all your questions,’” the advice says.
A representative with the ministry said Friday that professionals will have to “pretty quickly” share relevant information with the hostages about what has happened to their families and communities once they return to Israel.
Of the 39 Palestinian prisoners scheduled for release, they are expected to include 24 women and 15 children, Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Commission for Detainees and Ex-Prisoners’ Affairs, told CNN. Hamas published a list of names of the first batch of prisoners set for release, the majority of which are from the occupied West Bank, on Friday.
The deal also includes the further release of 150 prisoners during the four-day period, according to Israel. There is also the potential for an extension and more releases in the days following the currently agreed pause. Most of the prisoners concerned are male teenagers, along with some women, according to an Israeli government list of those who could be released.
The total number of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails is approximately 8,300, according to Qadura Fares, the head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club, a non-governmental organization.
Of those, more than 3,000 are being held in what Israel calls “administrative detention,” which Amnesty International says can be extended indefinitely.
The truce has been seen as an opportunity to ramp up humanitarian support to Gaza, though Qatari foreign ministry spokesperson Al-Ansari on Thursday warned “it would be a fraction of the need.”
The enclave has been struggling with severe shortages of basic supplies, food and fuel amid power outages and bombardment, with humanitarian groups and governments saying the levels of aid allowed in in past weeks were insufficient.
The United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has been preparing their operations for a couple of days “to be ready to profit as much as possible of this unique opportunity,” its chief Andrea de Domenico told CNN Thursday.