by Judith Sudilovsky
JERUSALEM (OSV News) — Following long days of delicate and intense negotiations between Israel and Hamas with the mediation of Qatar, Egypt and the U.S., the first group of hostages held by Hamas has been freed.
Twenty-four hostages — 13 Israeli civilians, 10 Thai and 1 Filipino — were transported through the Egyptian border in white Red Cross vehicles in the late afternoon local time of Nov. 24.
Hospitals’ in Israel prepared to receive the released hostages, and the media was asked to respect the privacy of families whose loved ones were to be released. The Israeli group of hostages released included four children, three mothers and six other women.
“We are relieved to confirm the safe release of 24 hostages,” the Red Cross said in a statement.
“We have facilitated this release by transporting them from Gaza to the Rafah border, marking the real-life impact of our role as a neutral intermediary between the parties,” it added.
The agreement between Israel and Hamas, originally scheduled to take place Nov. 23, was postponed for a day because Hamas had not yet presented a list of prisoners to be released.
According to the agreement at least 50 Israeli hostages — civilian women and children under age 19 — among the about 240 kidnapped by Hamas in their Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel will be released in batches over four days, during which there will be a pause in the fighting. The release of every additional 10 hostages will result in one additional day in the pause.
In the exchange, Israel also will allow fuel, medicine and other humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip and will release at least 150 Palestinians — also women and children. The list includes teenagers detained over the past year for rock-throwing and other minor offenses, but also those held in Israeli prisons convicted of murder attempts against Israelis.
On Nov. 22, the pope met with families of Israeli hostages, and later with the families of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. The Assembly of Italian Rabbis published a letter following the meeting criticizing the format of parallel meetings, saying that it unjustly put “innocents” who have been “torn from their families” in the Hamas terrorist attack on the same level as families with people often convicted of “very serious acts of terrorism.”
“And soon after, the Pope publicly accused both sides of terrorism,” the rabbis wrote, voicing their confusion over Pope Francis’ words: “This is what wars do. But here we have gone beyond wars. This is not war. This is terrorism.”
As the war in Gaza neared its 50th day, the destruction in the enclave is “simply unimaginable,” said Latin Patriarchate CEO Sami El-Yousef in a letter of reflection published on the website of the Latin Patriarchate Nov. 20. He noted that as of its writing the U.N. had said over 11,000 Palestinians had been killed in Israeli retaliatory strikes as it vowed to destroy Hamas infrastructure following the Hamas attack, and some 1.6 million people — almost 70% of the Gaza population — have been displaced.
Between 150,000 and 200,000 Israelis also have been evacuated from the southern and northern borders as Hamas and Hezbollah continue to lob rockets and missiles into Israel.
El-Yousef said the internally displaced Palestinians in Gaza were without a proper mechanism to care for their basic needs and most hospitals are not functioning because of the lack of electricity, fuel and medicines.
“Gazans are on the brink of starvation, dehydration, and disease outbreaks given the thousands of bodies rotting under the rubble; the start of the winter season; and the lack of any hygiene with 700 people sharing a shower and 500 people sharing a toilet,” he wrote.
He said some 600 people had taken refuge inside the Holy Family Parish complex located in northern Gaza, although Israel has asked that all Palestinians evacuate to the south.
“That is a huge responsibility to provide for their daily needs at a time of war and at a time when no new supplies are coming to the north,” he said.
The Christian community in Gaza has lost 21 people so far — over 2% of the Christian population.
“This is very devastating to all of us given that we have personally known most of those killed from previous visits and many were recipients of some of the aid programs and various activities,” he said of the Christians, most of whom have been killed on site of the Greek Orthodox church that was hit with an Israeli strike.
Israel has maintained that Hamas embeds its weapons and members within the civilian population and near sensitive locations such as hospitals and schools. Over the past week the IDF has taken foreign and Israeli TV reporters into Gaza to see the complex network of tunnels they uncovered underneath the main Al Shifa Hospital they say were used by Hamas terrorists.
El-Yousef said all Christian families in Gaza have been affected by the war, and the homes of over 50 families from the community have been destroyed.
“Incredible suffering of our small community, and we have not seen the worst of this ugly war yet,” El-Yousef said, adding that “most hospitals are out of service given the lack of electricity, fuel, and medicines; 55 ambulances have been damaged; fatalities include 102 U.N. relief workers, 200 health workers, and 51 journalists.”
He acknowledged that 11 bakeries have been destroyed “leaving people to wait between 4-6 hours to get some bread at the few operating bakeries; 45% of all housing units either completely or severely destroyed raising serious questions regarding the day after,” El-Yousef said.
One of the saddest incidents suffered by the community is that of the death of the parish’s 80-year-old former church organist and retired music teacher who was taking refuge at the Holy Family church complex. She was shot in the leg just outside her home after going to check on it and bring back some clothes. Because of the security situation, no one could reach her to take her to a hospital and she bled to death, El-Yousef said.
“She was on the street for three days until her body was collected and buried in a mass grave,” he said. “May they all rest in eternal peace.”
El-Yousef emphasized that the “Christian message of forgiveness, coexistence, tolerance, love, and peace does not change during times of war.”
“It is critical that this message continues to guide our society so that some tracks can be found to move forward to reach justice and peace for all who call the Holy Land home,” he said. “Humanity must return and all children of God regardless of their religion or nationality should be treated equally with dignity.”