Thirteen Israeli hostages were freed from Hamas captivity on Saturday night, in the second such exchange since a four-day truce took effect in the Gaza Strip the previous day.
Hamas had delayed the release for seven hours after accusing Israel of violating the terms of the ceasefire deal.
A senior official in Jerusalem had attributed the hold-up to a “technical matter” but security sources later said the IDF’s ground offensive in Gaza would recommence if the captives were not freed by midnight.
Red Cross representatives were bringing the 13 Israelis from Gaza to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula through the Rafah border crossing.
The hostages were set to be met by Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) agents in Egypt and then taken by IDF soldiers in an operation dubbed “Heaven’s Door” into southern Israel via the Kerem Shalom crossing.
They were then slated to head to Hatzerim Airbase near Beersheba for an initial physical and mental checkup before being flown by helicopter or taken by ambulance to medical centers across Israel to be reunited with their relatives.
The Prime Minister’s Office identified the Israelis freed on Saturday as: Mia Regev, 21; Emily Hand, 8; Hila Rotem Shoshani, 12; siblings Noam Or, 16, and Alma Or, 13; Sharon Hertzman Avigdori, 52, and her daughter Noam, 12; Shiri Weiss, 53, and her daughter Noga, 18; Shoshan Haran, 67, her daughter Adi Shoham, 38, and her children Neve, 8, and Yahel, 3.
In a separate deal, Qatar announced on Saturday that at least four foreign nationals were also released from captivity. A day earlier, Egypt had successfully negotiated the release of 10 Thai nationals and one Filipino who were abducted during Hamas’s Oct. 7 onslaught.
Meanwhile, the Israel Prison Service said on Saturday it would release 39 Palestinian security prisoners in accordance with the deal. The terrorists were slated to be moved to Ofer Prison for medical checks by the International Red Cross, ahead of their release to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria.
The same process took place on Friday when another 39 Palestinian terrorists were freed as part of the truce agreement.
The first group of 13 Israeli women and children was released on Friday as part of the deal, 49 days after Hamas terrorists kidnapped them and some 230 others during the Oct. 7 massacre of 1,200 people in the northwestern Negev.
The Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem identified the hostages released on Friday as Doron Katz-Asher, 34, Aviv Asher, 2, and Raz Asher, 4; Danielle Aloni, 45, and Emilia Aloni, 5; Ruth Monder, 78, Keren Monder, 54, and Ohad Monder, 9; Adina Moshe, 72; Channa Katzir, 76; Margalit Mozes, 77; Chana Perry, 79; and Yaffa Adar, 85.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), which holds some of the hostages in the Gaza Strip, previously announced that Katzir, from Kibbutz Nir Oz, had died in captivity. Katzir had appeared in a propaganda video circulated by the Iranian-backed terrorist group.
On Saturday, the freed captives continued to be reunited with their families. In a video released by the Schneider Children’s Medical Center of Israel in Petach Tikvah, Ohad Monder is seen running towards his father and being swept up into his arms. Ohad turned 9 years old while held in Gaza.
As part of the ceasefire agreement approved by the Israeli Cabinet on Wednesday, Hamas will release 12 to 13 hostages each day of the four-day truce. The release of every additional 10 hostages will result in one additional day in the pause in combat.
Israel also agreed to commute the sentences of at least 150 female and teenage Palestinian security prisoners, or three terrorists for every hostage that is released. Many of the Palestinian terrorists are affiliated with Hamas, PIJ and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The IDF will refrain from using surveillance drones in Gaza for six hours each day of the ceasefire. Israel will also allow fuel to enter the Strip during that time and dramatically increase the volume of goods permitted into the enclave.
Over the past two days, some 200 trucks carrying humanitarian aid have entered Gaza from Sinai, with more than 50 of them designated for the northern part of the Strip.
On Saturday, the Israel Defense Ministry’s Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) unit announced that four tankers of fuel and four tankers of cooking gas had entered Gaza from Egypt through the Rafah crossing.
On Saturday night, tens of thousands of Israelis participated in a rally in Tel Aviv calling for the return of every hostage being held by Palestinian terror groups in Gaza.
White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement on Saturday that U.S. President Joe Biden was briefed on developments throughout the day.
Biden also phoned Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to discuss the delay in the implementation of the hostage deal.
Biden spoke for about 10 minutes on Friday from Nantucket, Mass., about the release of the captives.
“It’s only a start, but so far, it’s gone well. This is the beginning of a long journey of healing for them,” he said.
Earlier, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew expressed relief that hostages were reuniting with their loved ones, adding that Washington “won’t rest until everyone comes home.”
In a statement Friday following the release of the first 13 Israeli hostages, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “We just completed the return of the first of our hostages: children, their mothers and additional women. Each of them is an entire world.
“But I emphasize to you, the families, and to you, citizens of Israel: We are committed to returning all the hostages. This is one of the aims of the war and we are committed to achieving all the aims of the war.”
On Saturday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant vowed during a tour of the Gaza Strip that IDF troops would not leave the enclave until all of the estimated remaining 225 captives are returned.
“As soon as the military pressure is on, they [Hamas] want a break. When you increase the pressure, they want another break. When you increase more, they are ready to come with an offer, and when you increase even more, they come with an offer that can be accepted,” said Gallant.
“We cannot stop the war until we reach a situation in which we bring all the hostages back,” he said, adding: “Any further negotiations will be under fire. If Hamas wants to discuss another deal, it will be while bombs fall.”