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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Hamas and Israel complete 3rd exchange of hostages for prisoners

President Joe Biden delivers remarks following a hostages-prisoners swap deal between Hamas and Israel during a press conference in Nantucket, Mass., on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023.

By Vivian Yee and Isabel Kershner

Hamas released 17 more hostages Sunday, including one American — Avigail Idan, who turned 4 on Friday — and said it would seek to extend a temporary cease-fire with Israel after the current four-day pause is over.

Under the deal reached last week, the cease-fire began Friday and is slated to continue into Monday. It is the longest break in fighting in the Gaza Strip since Oct. 7, when gunmen from Hamas and other militant groups launched a deadly attack on southern Israel.

Israel has said that it is prepared to grant another day’s pause for every 10 hostages Hamas releases beyond the 50 outlined in the agreement, but the Palestinian group, which controls Gaza, had not previously responded to the offer publicly.

The statement by Hamas came hours after the Israeli prime minister’s office said 14 Israelis, including nine children, and three foreigners had been released on the third day of the agreement, under which both sides agreed to exchange Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners and detainees.

Avigail, the 4-year-old, a dual Israeli and U.S. citizen, and the others released Sunday were among roughly 240 people taken to Gaza as hostages by Hamas and its allies Oct. 7, according to Israeli officials.

“Thank God she’s home,” U.S. President Joe Biden said of Avigail. Members of her family previously told The New York Times that her parents, Roy Idan and Smadar Idan, had been fatally shot at the Kfar Aza kibbutz. Her siblings — Michael, 9, and Amelia, 6 — survived the violence.

The Israeli prime minister’s office said multiple members of three families had been released Sunday. TV images showed Israelis lining the road near the Hatzerim air base in southern Israel, waving flags and cheering as the convoy of minibuses carrying 12 of the freed hostages made its way there.

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, chief spokesperson of the Israeli military, said another hostage, Elma Avraham, was flown by army helicopter directly from Gaza to an Israeli hospital in serious condition. The Israeli military said four others — one Israeli and three foreign nationals — had crossed into Egypt. Within hours of the hostages’ release, Israel’s prison service said it had released 39 Palestinians in its custody.

Majed Al-Ansari, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry of Qatar, which helped broker the deal, said on social media that the released hostages included a Russian national and three Thai citizens.

Under the deal announced last week, Hamas agreed to free at least 50 hostages, all women and children, while Israel would release from its prisons 150 Palestinian women and minors, some of whom were detained for violent crimes. Hamas had previously also released 10 Thai citizens and one Filipino.

On Sunday night, Hamas released a statement saying that it “seeks to extend the truce after the four-day period ends.”

In a positive indication of Israel’s continued openness to the idea of extending the truce, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a video statement soon after the Hamas statement in which he noted that there was already an outline for the possibility of freeing an additional 10 hostages for each additional day of truce, adding that he would welcome that.

Just a day earlier, there were fears the agreement could be in peril: Hamas threatened Saturday to postpone the second trade, claiming that Israel had reneged on parts of the agreement. But after an hourslong delay, the exchange went ahead with Hamas handing over 13 Israeli hostages, and Israel releasing 39 Palestinian prisoners and detainees.

An extended cease-fire could create more opportunities for other countries, particularly the United States, to pressure Israel to scale back its military goals. The Israeli response to the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on southern Israel has killed more than 13,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to health officials there, leading to rising alarm among Israel’s allies about its campaign.

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