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First Israeli hostages released as guns in Gaza go silent

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JERUSALEM — The guns and fighter jets that pummeled the Gaza Strip for the past seven weeks fell silent on Friday, the first day of a negotiated four-day pause in combat that allowed the release of a first group of Israeli hostages for Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, enabled truckloads of aid to rush in and brought an uneasy calm to the besieged enclave.

The brief respite — a 96-hour intermission before the war is expected to resume — followed weeks of delicate negotiations between Hamas and Israel mediated by Qatar. The start was delayed 24 hours by last-minute wrangling over logistics, according to Qatari mediators, and while the first day of exchanges appeared to be relatively orderly, the halt was still fragile.

Thirteen Israeli hostages — women and children ranging in age from 2 to 85 — were turned over by Hamas to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which transported them from Gaza into Egypt to be flown to hospitals for private reunions with loved ones. They were the first of 50 Israeli women and children to be released in exchange for 150 Palestinian women and children held in Israeli prisons over the next several days.

At least 10 Thai workers and one Filipino, who were taken hostage by Hamas on Oct. 7, when militants launched a surprise attack on Israeli towns that left 1,200 dead, were also released, Thai and Egyptian officials said.

At the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, onlookers held up phones to capture the moment the ICRC delivered the hostages from Gaza into Egypt — and to family and freedom.

In the West Bank, a euphoric crowd greeted the Palestinian captives released by Israel. Video posted on social media showed children in Gaza running with what appeared to be pleasure rather than fear.

The pause, which began at 7 a.m. local time, was the first break in Israel’s assault on Gaza since the Hamas incursion.

Under the terms of the deal, the Israeli military will keep its forces in place but cease attacks as captives are swapped in small batches, starting with 13 Israelis for 39 Palestinian prisoners on Friday, Palestinian and Qatari officials said. The ICRC said it had facilitated the transfer of 33 Palestinian prisoners. The reason for the discrepancy was unclear.

Under the deal, three Palestinian prisoners are to be released for every hostage freed.

Doron Katz Asher, a 34-year-old Israeli-German citizen, and her daughters Raz, 4, and Aviv, 2, were kidnapped from a kibbutz in southern Israel on Oct. 7. Chen Dori-Roberts said he spotted his cousin Friday in footage of ambulances leaving Gaza but didn’t celebrate until her release was confirmed by Israeli officials.

“Everybody’s celebrating right now,” said Dori-Roberts, 46, a live event producer in Austin. “But we know there’s still a lot more hostages.”

Within minutes of the halt in fighting, Gazans filled the enclave’s rubble-strewn streets under skies clear of fighter jets and drones for the first time in weeks. Relief workers increased the flow of aid to a population suffering from dwindling food, power, sanitation and health care.

Many in Middle East blame United States for devastation in Gaza

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Friday that 137 trucks, the largest humanitarian convoy into Gaza since the conflict erupted, offloaded critical aid. Four trucks of gas and 129,000 liters of fuel entered from Egypt and 21 patients were evacuated from the north.

In Gaza, some of the estimated 1.7 million displaced — 80 percent of the population — sought provisions and better shelter. More than 13,300 people have been killed in the strip since Oct. 7, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Images from the enclave Friday showed the emergence of signs of life that had been missing for weeks. In the northeastern city of Beit Hanoun, children carrying plastic bags picked their way southward through a maze of bent metal, crushed concrete and broken glass. In the southern city of Khan Younis, the streets bustled with men riding bicycles and children playing.

In Gaza City, Ayman Amin ventured out of the home where he has been sheltering with his wife, three children and a sister for the first time in five days. He found a wasteland of smashed buildings and neighbors pulling bodies from the rubble.

“We left the house, but our souls are still filled with fear, whether it’s from what we see or the possibility of returning to war after four days,” Amin told The Washington Post. “Today is completely sunny, but fear still lingers in people’s eyes.”

Israel warned Gazans not to treat the pause as a return to normal. Minutes before it began, the military dropped leaflets and sent voice texts saying that “the war is not over” and forbidding those who had fled south to try to return to their homes in the north.

Those still living in the northern areas saw evidence that Israel was prepared to back up the threats. In a voice message to The Post, Mahmoud described a phalanx of Israeli tanks deployed along Nasser Street in northern Gaza City, a clear warning for civilians not to pass. There was heavy-caliber shooting nearby, he said.

“The situation is so dangerous,” the 36-year-old said, speaking on the condition that his last name be withheld out of fear for his safety.

The aid allowed to cross into Gaza from Egypt since Oct. 7 has been limited. Fuel to power generators in the enclave is depleted, leaving hospitals, bakeries, water-supply systems and phone networks unable to function.

Israel’s border with Lebanon, where the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah has engaged in daily exchanges of fire with Israel since Oct. 7, was quiet on Friday, raising hopes that the break in hostilities in Gaza would help bring calm to the region. The negotiations for the pause did not include Hezbollah.

The family members of people taken hostage by Hamas and other groups were bracing for days of whipsaw emotions as captives are released, but perhaps not their own loved ones.

Adva Adar’s 85-year-old grandmother was driven into Gaza on Oct. 7 in her own golf cart.

“Of course the children have to come back first,” Adar said. “But we can’t forget the others, and we can’t forget the elders.”

The hostages are emerging into a region transformed by war since their last contact with the outside world. Some might learn that the forces that captured them killed their parents, children, siblings and friends.

“There are children with parents that have died or were murdered,” Ziv Agmon, an adviser to the head of the National Public Diplomacy Directorate of Israel, told reporters Friday. “And because there was no connection with the hostages, we don’t know what they know and what they don’t.”

The fate of the captives has consumed the Israeli public, and growing demonstrations demanding their release helped push the government into negotiations with Hamas. Their return has been meticulously planned, Agmon said.

The Israeli military would take custody of the hostages and verify their identities, he said. A physician would examine each and administer immediate aid as necessary.

Only medical screenings, the hostages would be allowed to call their families, by phone or video link. Counselors would be present to assist with the conversations — a particular concern for hostages who will be learning of the deaths of loved ones.

Then hostages would be transported to hospitals for private reunions with loved ones. Male and female physicians, including pediatricians, gynecologists and psychiatrists, would be standing by.

“Today is not going to be an easy day,” Agmon said. “We will begin the day hoping that we will really see a good picture at the end of the day.”

More than 30 Palestinian prisoners were turned over to the ICRC on Friday evening at Israel’s Ofer Prison in the West Bank, Palestinian officials said.

The prisoners were to be identified, screen medically and given back their belongings returned, an Israeli official told The Post. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Israel’s justice ministry this week published a list of roughly 300 Palestinian prisoners who could be released. Family members scoured social media Friday for news their loved ones were among those freed.

Some gathered in the town of Beitunia hours before the prisoner swap was due to happen. Others converged on Ofer Prison. The crowd was repeatedly forced back by volleys of tear gas. At one point, an Israeli soldier trained his weapon’s bright green laser directly into the crowd.

Mohamed Al-Barghouti was waiting outside Ofer Prison for his wife, Hanan. She’d been in administrative detention for 40 days; they couple had had no contact since the war began.

He beamed as he spoke of his wife. But when the conversation turned to the war in Gaza, his face was somber.

“Everyone has paid a high price for this day,” he said. “We cannot feel joy. Our happiness cannot be complete.”

By the time darkness fell in Beitunia, anticipation had turned the atmosphere electric. Finally, the prisoners were released. One by one, the boys were hoisted onto the shoulders of young men in the crowd and carried toward the municipality building. They wore gray prison uniforms, and were draped in the bright green banners of Hamas.

First to arrive was Laith Othman, 17, to be receive by the roaring crowd as a hero. He looked euphoric — and at times, almost shocked — by the fervor. Only when a male relative pushed through the crowd to hug him did the young man bow his head and start to cry.

Khittam al-Titi beamed and sobbed as she embraced her daughter, Aseel, who the family said had been arrested after an altercation with an Israeli soldier who had tried to remove her headscarf during a security check.

She’s my daughter, it’s my daughter,” Titi kept crying.

They had waited all day for this moment. But the joy was laced with sadness.

“Of course we’re happy, but how can we really rejoice,” said Titi’s husband, Mounir. “All that blood shed in Gaza, they were the price that was paid for this.”

Parker reported from Tel Aviv, Balousha from Amman, Jordan, Dadouch from Beirut, Loveluck from Beitunia, West Bank and Coletta from Toronto. Carrie Keller-Lynn and Lior Soroka in Tel Aviv, Karen DeYoung in Washington, Liz Sly in Beirut and Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Palestine, Tex., contributed to this report.

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