Thirteen Israeli hostages were freed by Hamas on Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden said, as the International Committee of the Red Cross began evacuation operations.
The ICRC said its operation will take place over “several days” as a temporary ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas militant group remains in effect.
“In its role as a neutral intermediary, the ICRC over several days will transfer hostages held in Gaza to Israeli authorities and ultimately their families, and transfer Palestinian detainees to authorities in the West Bank, to be reunited with their families. The ICRC will also bring in additional medical supplies to be delivered to hospitals in Gaza, reinforcing the aid deliveries the ICRC has already carried out,” the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a news release.
“The parties to the conflict agreed to the details of the operation, including who would be released and when. The ICRC was not involved in the negotiations, and its role is to help facilitate the agreement as a neutral intermediary.”
Biden said in an update Friday that 13 of the freed hostages were Israelis. He said U.S. officials will know “in the coming hours” whether a second release will happen.
“Today’s release is the start of a process,” Biden said.
“We expect more hostages to be released tomorrow and more on the day after and the day after that.”
A four-day cease-fire between Israel and Hamas began Friday. The deal offered some relief for Gaza’s 2.3 million people, who have endured weeks of Israeli bombardment and dwindling supplies of basic necessities, as well as for families in Israel worried about loved ones taken captive during Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, which triggered retaliatory Israeli airstrikes.
The truce has raised hopes of eventually winding down the conflict, which has flattened vast swaths of Gaza, fuelled a surge of violence in the occupied West Bank and stirred fears of a wider conflagration across the Middle East.
Israel, however, has said it is determined to resume its massive offensive once the cease-fire ends in order to dismantle Hamas.
Biden said the chances are “real” the truce gets extended, but did not elaborate.
Israel has agreed to allow the delivery of 130,000 litres of fuel per day during the truce – still only a small portion of Gaza’s estimated daily needs of more than one million litres.
For most of the past seven weeks of conflict, Israel had barred the entry of fuel to Gaza, claiming it could be used by Hamas for military purposes – though it has occasionally allowed small amounts in.
During the ceasefire, Gaza’s ruling Hamas group pledged to free at least 50 of the about 240 hostages it and other militants took on Oct. 7. Hamas said Israel would free 150 Palestinian prisoners.
Both sides agreed to release women and children first. Israel said the deal calls for the truce to be extended an extra day for every additional 10 hostages freed.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also vowed to continue the conflict to destroy Hamas’ military capabilities, end its 16-year rule in Gaza and return all the hostages.
Biden urged Netanyahu on Friday to focus on reducing the number of causalities while attempting to eliminate Hamas.
“That’s a difficult task, and I don’t know how long will it take,” he said.
“My expectation and hope is that as we move forward, the rest of the Arab world and the region is also putting pressure on all sides to slow this down, to bring this to an end as quickly as we can.”
— with files from The Associated Press