Combat between Israeli troops and Hamas fighters halted on Friday for the first time in seven weeks in a temporary truce ahead of the planned release of Israeli hostages held by the militants in exchange for jailed Palestinians.
No big bombings, artillery strikes or rocket attacks were reported, although Hamas and Israel both accused each other of sporadic shootings and other violations. Both said the war would resume on full throttle as soon as the truce was over.
In Khan Younis town in southern Gaza, streets filled with people venturing out of home and shelters into a landscape of buildings flattened into heaps of rubble. Displaced families with small children carried belongings in plastic bags, hoping to return at least temporarily to homes they had abandoned earlier in the war.
“I am now very happy, I feel at ease. I am going back to my home, our hearts are rested,” said Ahmad Wael, smiling as he walked carrying a carpet balanced on his head. “I am very tired of sitting without any food or water. There (at home) we can live, we drink tea, make bread.”
Above northern Gaza’s combat zone, viewed from across the fence in Israel, there was no sign of the warplanes that have thundered through the sky for weeks, explosions on the ground or the contrails of Hamas rocketfire. Just one plume of smoke was visible in the early afternoon.
Columns of Israeli tanks rolled away from the Gaza Strip’s northern end, while aid trucks entered from Egypt at the southern end.
The four-day ceasefire, which began at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT), involves the release of 50 women and children hostages held by the fighters, in return for 150 Palestinian woman and teenagers held in Israeli jails. The first 13 hostages and 39 Palestinians were due to be freed later on Friday.
Israel says it could be extended beyond four days if more hostages are freed at a rate of at least 10 per day, and a Palestinian source has said up to 100 could ultimately go free.
Additional aid is to flow into Gaza, which has been gripped by a humanitarian crisis under weeks of Israeli bombardment that has killed thousands of Palestinians.
Hamas confirmed that all hostilities from its forces would cease. But Abu Ubaida, spokesperson for Hamas’ armed wing, later stressed that this was a “temporary truce”.
In a video message, he called for an “escalation of the confrontation…on all resistance fronts”, including the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant vowed a similar return to fighting: “This will be a short pause, at the conclusion of which the war (and) fighting will continue with great might and will generate pressure for the return of more hostages.”
Israel launched its assault on Gaza after Hamas fighters burst across the border fence into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and seizing about 240 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.
Since then, Israel has rained bombs on the Hamas-ruled enclave, killing some 14,000 Gazans, around 40% of them children, according to Palestinian health authorities.
Hundreds of thousands of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have fled their homes to escape the violence as conditions grew ever more desperate, with food, drinking water, fuel and other basic supplies running short.
It is the bloodiest episode in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel’s stated intention is to eradicate Hamas once and for all.
NO RETURN ALLOWED TO NORTH OF STRIP
Israel has told displaced Gazans not to attempt to return to the northern part of the Gaza Strip, focus of its ground campaign since the start of this month.
Gaza residents said the Israelis had dropped leaflets warning people not to travel north and have fired over the heads of some people who were trying to get back into Gaza City.
Al-Jazeera reported that two Palestinians were killed and another was wounded by Israeli soldiers shooting at people who tried to return to the north. There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military.
Sirens sounded in two southern Israeli villages warning of possible incoming Palestinian rockets. An Israeli government spokesman said Hamas had fired rockets in violation of the truce but there were no reports of damage.
Fighting had raged in the hours leading up to the truce, with officials inside the enclave saying a hospital in Gaza City was among the targets bombed.
The Indonesian Hospital was operating without light and filled with bedridden old people and children too weak to be moved, Gaza health officials said. Al-Jazeera quoted Mounir El Barsh, the Gaza health ministry director, as saying a patient, a wounded woman, was killed and three others injured.
There was no comment from Israel on the reported incident.
WOMEN, CHILDREN HOSTAGES TO BE FREED
The temporary truce came about amid international concern over the fate of the hostages and the plight of Palestinian civilians trapped in Gaza. Israel has rejected calls for a full ceasefire, arguing it would benefit Hamas, a position backed by the United States.
The 13 first hostages were expected to be released around 1400 GMT to the Red Cross and an Egyptian security delegation, then brought out through Egypt for transfer to Israel, Egyptian security sources said. In exchange Israel will release 24 women and 15 teenagers in the occupied West Bank, Palestinian officials said.
The head of the Palestinian Authority’s prisoners’ commission, Qadura Fares, said that as soon as Israel received the hostages at the Rafah crossing, Israel’s prisons’ authority would move the Palestinian prisoners to the Red Cross.
Under the agreement, desperately-needed aid began to be delivered to Gaza. By mid-morning, 60 trucks carrying aid had crossed from Egypt at the Rafah border point, according to Gaza border authorities.
Two of the first trucks to enter sported banners that said, “Together for Humanity.” Another said: “For our brothers in Gaza.”
Egypt has said 130,000 litres of diesel and four trucks of gas will be delivered daily to Gaza and that 200 trucks of aid would enter Gaza daily.
A Palestinian official familiar with the truce talks told Reuters that only three trucks of aid out of 100 trucks had reached the northern Gaza Strip so far.
“This is grave foot-dragging,” the official said.