The fragile cease-fire between Israel and Hamas was back on track Sunday as the militants freed 17 more hostages, including 14 Israelis and the first American, in a third exchange under a four-day truce that the United States said it hoped would be extended. In turn, Israel released 39 Palestinian prisoners.
Most hostages were handed over directly to Israel, waving to a cheering crowd as they arrived at an air force base. Others left through Egypt. Israel’s army said one was airlifted to a hospital, and the director of Soroka Medical Center said Elma Avraham, 84, was in life-threatening condition as “a result of an extended period of time when an elderly woman was not taken care of as needed.”
The youngest hostage released was Abigail Edan, a 4-year-old girl and dual Israeli-American citizen whose parents were killed in the Hamas attack that started the war on Oct. 7.
“What she endured was unthinkable,” U.S. President Joe Biden said of the first American freed under the truce. He did not know her condition and did not provide updates on other American hostages. Biden said his goal was to extend the cease-fire deal as long as possible.
In all, nine children ages 17 and younger were on the list, according to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office. Three more Thai nationals were released. Separately, Hamas said it released a Russian hostage “in response to the efforts of Russian President Vladimir Putin.”
The three Thai nationals were undergoing health checks at a medical center in Israel and brought the total number of Thai hostages released to 17, Thailand’s Foreign Ministry said. The ministry said it was pursuing efforts for the safe release of the 15 remaining Thai hostages. Thais working in Israel are mostly employed as semi-skilled farm laborers, at wages considerably higher than those at they can earn at home.
The Palestinian prisoners released were children and young men, ages 15-19, largely accused of public disorder, property damage and in some cases causing or threatening physical harm to Israeli officers by throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. Many were scooped up from protests and confrontations with troops. In turn, many Palestinians view prisoners held by Israel, including those implicated in attacks, as heroes resisting occupation.
A fourth exchange is expected on Monday – the last day of the cease-fire during which a total of 50 hostages and 150 Palestinian prisoners are to be freed. Most are women and minors. International mediators led by the U.S., Egypt and Qatar were trying to extend the cease-fire that began Friday. “We can get all hostages back home. We have to keep pushing,” said two of Edan’s relatives, a great aunt and cousin, in a statement thanking mediators. Hamas for the first time said it would seek to extend the deal by looking to release a larger number of hostages. Netanyahu issued a statement saying he had spoken to Biden and reiterated his offer to extend the cease-fire by an additional day for every 10 hostages Hamas releases. But he said Israel would resume its offensive “with all of our might” once the truce expires.