Heather Cox Richardson
The second exchange of hostages taken from Israel by Hamas on October 7, for prisoners held by Israel took place today. Hamas released thirteen Israelis and four Thais into the hands of the Red Cross at the Egyptian crossing into Gaza, and Israel dropped off nearly three dozen Palestinian prisoners in the West Bank.
In the first exchange, on Friday, Hamas released 24 of about 240 hostages it took during its October 7, 2023, attack on Israel: 13 Israeli women and children, along with 10 Thais and a Filipino who were working in Israel. In exchange, Israel released 24 imprisoned Palestinian women and 15 teenage boys. Israel holds more than 6000 Palestinians on grounds they are a security threat; on the list of 300 prisoners Israel is willing to release, most are awaiting trial. Less than a quarter have been convicted of a crime.
The hostage-prisoner exchanges are at the heart of a four-day truce finalized yesterday, on November 24, after five weeks of what a Biden administration official described as “extremely excruciating” negotiations between the leaders of Qatar, Egypt, and Israel, under the strong influence of the United States.
According to Ayman Mohyeldin, Anna Schecter, and Corky Siemaszko of NBC News, the U.S. and Qatar began to try to get the hostages released hours after the October 7 attack. But Israel was not willing to talk to Hamas, and Hamas officials maintained it had taken only about 70 Israeli soldiers and 50 women and children, saying they did not know where the rest of the missing captives were, although some, they said, had been kidnapped by individual Palestinian gangs.
When talks began, Israel wanted all the hostages released, but this was a nonstarter for Hamas leaders, who need hostages for their own bargaining power. Then Israeli airstrikes so pulverized Gaza that the Biden administration insisted on halts to the bombing so relief agencies could deliver food and aid, as well as the construction of humanitarian corridors to permit Palestinians in northern Gaza to travel to the south. Officials from Qatar, where many of Hamas’s leaders live, stepped in to broker talks.
Those talks began to gain headway when Israel gained more control of northern Gaza and began to negotiate through U.S., Qatari, and Egyptian officials for the release of women and children. Finally, yesterday a deal was hammered out that over the course of a four-day truce, Hamas would release at least 50 hostages and Israel would release 150 Palestinian prisoners, all women and children. More aid trucks are supposed to be allowed into Gaza, and Israel is supposed to stop drone surveillance flights over Gaza for six hours a day.
Israel has said it is willing to extend the truce an extra day for each additional 10 hostages freed.
Still, Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing supporters refused to agree to the terms of the truce until U.S. President Joe Biden pressured them to do so. “This deal was a Biden deal, not a Netanyahu deal,” a senior official in the Israeli government told the NBC reporters. Biden administration officials have been constantly engaged with the region’s leaders to help hammer out the agreement.
Yesterday, when the deal was finally firm, Biden spoke from Nantucket, where he and his family were celebrating Thanksgiving. “I have consistently pressed for a pause in the fighting for two reasons,” he said: “to accelerate and expand the humanitarian assistance going into Gaza and…to facilitate the release of hostages.”
Once again, he emphasized that “this cycle of violence in the Middle East” must end. And, once again, he called for “a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can one day live side by side…with equal measure of freedom and dignity.” He told reporters, “There’s overwhelming interest—and I think most Arab nations know it—in coordinating with one another to change the dynamic in their region for a longer-term peace.” He noted that he was “working very closely with the Saudis and others…to bring peace to the region by having recognition of Israel and Israel’s right to exist” when Hamas attacked on October 7, a move Hamas leaders told reporters was intended to make sure the Palestinian cause did not get forgotten.
While two Americans were released on October 20, no more Americans were released in these first two groups under the truce. Holding Americans keeps the U.S. deeply involved in the struggle, and since pressure from the U.S. is key to moderating the behavior of Israel’s right-wing coalition leadership under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, continuing to hold Americans provides leverage for Hamas.
Yesterday the United Nations delivered the largest convoy of aid, fuel, and cooking gas to Gaza that it has been able to since it started sending aid convoys into the war-torn area on October 21. Still, after seven weeks of fighting, far more is needed.