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Elation and relief for some families as some Israeli hostages are freed

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TEL AVIV — After weeks without news, followed by days of anticipation and then tense hours Friday when it seemed like anything could go wrong, it happened all at once.

Around 6 p.m., a convoy of white International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) SUVs rolled toward the Rafah border crossing. Women and children could be glimpsed through the car windows; one elderly, white-haired woman raised her arm to wave.

The vehicles disappeared through the gate toward Egypt, and a nation exhaled. The first group of 13 Israeli hostages held by Hamas to be released under a major deal to pause fighting were safely out of Gaza.

The scene marked a watershed moment in the bloody six-week-old war between Israel and Hamas — showing that diplomacy could provide some measure of relief to civilians.

Chen Dori-Roberts spotted his cousin, Doron Katz Asher, in footage of the convoy leaving the Gaza Strip, but didn’t celebrate until her release was confirmed by the Israeli army and hostage family support groups.

Katz Asher, 34, was freed along with daughters Raz, 4, and Aviv, 2. They were abducted from a kibbutz near the Gaza border in southern Israel where they had been visiting her mother, Efrat Katz, on the Jewish holiday Shemini Atzeret. The family was later notified that Katz, 67, had been killed in the Oct. 7 assault by Hamas on Israel, and they held a funeral Oct. 26.

“Everybody’s celebrating right now,” Dori-Roberts, 46, a live-event producer based in Austin, told The Washington Post. “But we know there’s still a lot more hostages. This is a happy moment but we have a lot of work ahead of us. We have to keep going until all the hostages are released.”

The Israeli women and children released Friday, ranging in age from 5 to 85, were among an estimated 240 taken on Oct. 7 by Hamas and other Palestinian militants to Gaza.

Four of the Israelis released Friday, including Katz Asher, also hold German citizenship, the German government confirmed. None of the at least nine American citizens held by Hamas were released.

President Biden on Friday hailed the first releases.

“It’s only a start,” he said from Nantucket, Mass., where he is spending the Thanksgiving holiday. “But so far, it’s gone well.”

Biden said he didn’t know when American hostages would be released but said “my hope and expectation is it will be soon.”

Eleven foreign nationals — 10 Thai citizens and a Filipino citizen — were released separately on Friday, outside of the framework of this week’s deal between Israel and Hamas, Majed al-Ansari, a spokesman for Qatar’s Foreign Ministry, said in a statement. Thailand’s Foreign Ministry said last week that Palestinian militants had abducted 25 Thai nationals on Oct. 7.

A list of names of the 10 Thai nationals released Friday was not provided. A relative confirmed to The Post that they had been notified that the Filipino national released was Jimmy Pacheco, a caregiver who was kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Oz.

Israeli authorities identified those freed Friday, in addition to Katz Asher and her daughters, as Danielle Aloni, 45, and Emilia Aloni, 5; Ruth Munder, 78, Keren Munder, 54 and Ohad Munder, 9; Adina Moshe, 72; Chana Katzir, 76; Margalit Mozes, 77; Chana Peri, 79; and Yaffa Adar, 85.

Adar was filmed being driven by Palestinian militants into Gaza on Oct. 7 on a golf cart. She is “the coolest grandmother you’ll ever meet,” granddaughter Adva Adar told The Post on Thursday.

“She loved to eat good food and drink good wine and celebrate,” Adva said, speaking of her grandmother in the past tense ahead of her release because the family felt too afraid to “have any feeling that she’s certainly coming back.” Adva could not be reached for comment Friday.

Many of those released in the first group hailed from Kibbutz Nir Oz. Founded in 1958 and located just over a mile from the Gaza border, the collective of some 427 people — many of them peace activists — was one of the hardest hit by the Hamas attacks. Roughly a quarter of its residents were either killed or taken hostage.

The releases Friday were the result of weeks of intense diplomatic negotiations between Israel, the United States, Egypt and Qatar, which acted as a mediator in the deal and hosted talks in Doha. And they came after tireless advocacy from families of hostages who made it their mission to lodge the faces and names of their captive relatives firmly into the minds of the Israeli public and leaders worldwide.

Gil Dickmann, 31, whose 39-year-old cousin Carmel Gat is among the hostages still in Gaza, has spoken out on behalf of all hostage families.

“We can’t be sure, but I believe that this pressure that we applied on the Israeli government was very, very important in creating the atmosphere that led to the authorization of the deal,” he said.

How pressure from hostage families nudged Israel toward a deal

The women and children returned to Israel on Friday are the first of 50 slated to be freed during a four-day pause in hostilities, in exchange for the release of 150 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and the entry of additional humanitarian aid into the besieged and devastated Gaza Strip. Hamas previously released four hostages from captivity last month, including Americans Judith and Natalie Raanan.

The ICRC said it had facilitated the release of 33 Palestinian detainees from Ofer Prison to Ramallah in the West Bank on Friday as part of the exchange.

The pause in fighting began at 7 a.m. local time, followed by hours of nervous anticipation in Israel as Hamas fighters gathered the women and children to be released.

As the clock ticked down to 4 p.m., the time set for the hostages’ release, doctors and social workers carried out preparations to receive the hostages at six medical centers across Israel. Family members of the 13, who had been notified the night before, were told which hospital their relatives would be taken to.

Specially-trained representatives of the Israel Defense Forces greeted those released, verified their identities and transported them first to Hatzerim air base in the Negev desert and then to waiting hospitals.

Initial medical examinations showed the released hostages “face no life-threatening medical emergencies,” Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the chief spokesman for Israel’s military, said at a news conference, adding that they would receive further examination and treatment.

For most families of hostages, however, the painful wait for news of their loved ones dragged on.

Dham Alziadna — a member of Israel’s Bedouin population, part of its Arab minority, who had several relatives kidnapped by Hamas from the cow dairy in Kibbutz Kolit where they worked — said when his family saw a list earlier this week of women and children hostages who could be released, “it was like medicine to relieve the pain we have been feeling for so long.”

They thought Aisha, 17, the daughter of Alziadna’s cousin, might be freed. The news that she was not among the first group Friday was crushing, Alziadna said.

“We hope that if she doesn’t get out today she will get out tomorrow or the next day,” he said.

It’s unclear how many of the remaining hostages are still alive, or what their condition is after weeks of captivity.

For the women and children emerging from 49 days of captivity, the road to recovery is expected to be long and difficult, doctors and social workers said.

Most will learn — from professionals tasked with informing them — that family members and neighbors were killed on Oct. 7. Some of the children are now orphans. Those from decimated kibbutzim in southern Israel don’t have homes to return to.

Emerging from weeks of underground captivity into the light will likely overwhelm their senses at first, doctors said. It may take a while for returnees to relearn how to eat normally, to interact with others, to trust. Families will be designated social workers to guide them through this process, said Sarit Sarfatti, deputy head of child protection social workers at Israel’s Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs.

“We need to regain their trust and help them feel safe and secure and basically help them feel they can let go, and they can ask for help and they can start to process the experience they have been [through],” she said.

Judith Sudilovsky in Jerusalem, Lior Soroka, Heidi Levine and Carrie Keller-Lynnin in Tel Aviv, Hazem Balousha in Amman, Jordan, Matt Viser in Nantucket, Mass., and Bryan Pietsch in Washington contributed to this report.

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