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Tearful family reunions, aid trucks rumbling into the devastated Gaza Strip, the roar of bombardment abruptly going silent: Friday’s pause in hostilities and a dramatic but limited hostage-prisoner exchange marked a major breakthrough in nearly seven weeks of bloody warfare between Israel and Hamas.

But the hard-won hiatus, intended to last for three more days, posed new dilemmas for the warring parties and their backers, did little to remove the catastrophic specter of ongoing battle, and could presage immense new hardships for Palestinian civilians in battered Gaza.

Israel vows that the war will continue, and has shown no sign of relenting in its determination to destroy Hamas, whose fighters surged across the Gaza frontier on Oct. 7 and killed some 1,200 people in southern Israel, seizing an estimated 240 others as captives.

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That triggered retaliatory Israeli airstrikes that laid waste to much of the narrow coastal enclave, killing more than 13,000 Palestinians, by the count of local health officials.

For traumatized Gaza residents, one of the more obvious signs the truce had taken hold was unaccustomed silence in the skies overhead. Many seized the opportunity — however fleeting it may prove — to venture into ruined streets to stock up on drinking water, cooking oil, flour and other necessities.

Saeed Lulu, who fled Gaza City as it was systematically smashed by bombing, was sheltering with 17 relatives in a one-bedroom apartment in Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza.

He had hoped to go see whether his apartment was still intact, but Israeli troops were preventing travel north, and anyway, he heard from neighbors that the entire complex had been leveled.

“We want to go back, but we have no house and no job to go back to,” he said. “Who will take responsibility for this?”

For the families of Israel’s missing, who banded together to force the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to prioritize their freedom, the day was bittersweet: cause for rejoicing over the freeing of 13 Israeli women and children, but also a bleak reminder that many more loved ones remained in harm’s way inside Gaza.

A man takes picture with his mobile of International Red Cross vehicles reportedly carrying hostages

Ambulances and emergency workers wait outside Schneider Medical Center, where some of the released hostages are expected to be brought, Friday in Petah Tivka, Israel.

(Erik Marmor / Getty Images)

Eleven other foreign nationals, 10 of them Thai citizens, were freed separately, Israeli officials said.

Releases concluding Monday are expected to bring the total freed to 50 Israelis and 150 Palestinians.

The Israeli hostages handed over Friday ranged in age from 2 to 85 — the eldest person freed, Yaffa Adar, had been shown in video from the day of the attack being spirited away by Hamas in a golf cart. All were kept well away from public view, except for a few fleeting glimpses. At Gaza’s Rafah border crossing, cameras caught a small girl with long blond hair being led in the early-evening dark from an Egyptian ambulance.

Israeli officials said the freed hostages would be kept sequestered for now in hospitals, seeing only family members and medical personnel.

The pause in hostilities throws into sharp relief the split-screen reality inhabited by Israelis and Palestinians, exemplified by the searing question of who bears the ultimate responsibility for the suffering of civilians in Gaza.

Palestinians place the onus squarely on Israel’s devastating bombardment and the harsh curtailment of all of life’s necessities — food, fuel, clean water, medical care. Israel staunchly maintains that moral culpability lies with Hamas, which it says has shown scant concern for Gaza’s people.

The Israeli army claims to have inflicted substantial damage on Hamas in the course of its air assault and ground operations, but for the militant group, the Oct. 7 attack was an unqualified triumph, humiliating Israel’s military and shattering Israelis’ sense of security.

Hamas believes the attack, for all its brutality, put what had been viewed as a languishing Palestinian cause back at the center of the world political map.

And it reinvigorated the group’s bid to proclaim itself — rather than its widely despised rival, the Palestinian Authority — as the protector of Palestinians’ interests, able to wear down Israel through sheer force of will.

“You have to compare Israel’s position at the beginning [of the war] and now — I think this is the start of a gradual descent from that maximal position,” said Oraib Rantawi, director of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies.

Though the initial numbers were small, securing the freedom of 39 of the estimated 8,000 Palestinians jailed by Israel was widely viewed as a prestigious feat for Hamas.

The plight of the prisoners is an emotional touchstone across the West Bank and Gaza. Over the decades, nearly every Palestinian family has been touched at some point by the imprisonment of a father, a son, an uncle, a sister.

Some cases involve years-long family separations over relatively minor infractions such as throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers. Freed prisoners are customarily hailed as returning heroes.

In the West Bank city of Beitunia, thousands of people rushed to the streets to greet buses delivering the detainees, who were quickly swarmed by the cheering crowd.

Rawan Abu Ziyadeh, 29, had seven months left of her nine-year sentence for stabbing an Israeli soldier. She said that she and other inmates had learned from radio broadcasts that there was a deal in the making, and that she was told Friday morning that she was among those being freed.

“I just thank God I get to see her,” said her mother, Naima Hmeidan, who appeared dazed.

Also released was Fairoz Albo, a 25-year-old university student who had been in detention for two years for alleged involvement in a stabbing. She denied the accusations against her.

“The manacles have been smashed,” she said in a fiery speech to reporters and others gathered around her.

The hopes of other Palestinian families were dashed as the day’s releases wrapped up. In the West Bank city of Jenin, Amneh Abu Hammad wondered whether her 40-year-old daughter, Yasmine Shaaban, previously sentenced for links to the militant group Islamic Jihad before being re-arrested in March of last year, might be among the freed detainees.

She was not.

“It doesn’t matter,” said her mother. “All of those released today are my daughters as well.”

In letting a limited number of Israeli and foreign hostages go, Hamas lost some of its bargaining leverage. But its grip on scores more, including many Israeli soldiers, gives it a powerful weapon to continue to wield against Israel, which in the past has engaged in lopsided swaps to free even a sole captive.

Palestinian prisoners, wearing gray jumpers, cheer after being released from the Israeli Ofer military facility in Beitunia.

Palestinian prisoners, wearing gray jumpers, cheer after being released from the Israeli Ofer military facility in Beitunia in the occupied West Bank in exchange for hostages freed by Hamas in Gaza on Friday.

(Ahmad Gharabli / AFP via Getty Images)

Militarily, even a temporary halt to Israel’s unrelenting assault favors Hamas, analysts said.

“They have gained a tactical advantage,” Bilal Saab of the defense and security program of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said of Hamas. “I do not want to call it a win, given the death and destruction brought on the Palestinian people, but they have gained a practical advantage.”

For Israel, the deal had many downsides, but the risk was necessary, said Mara Rudman, a Middle East expert in the Clinton and Obama administrations who is now at the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington.

Trying to defeat Hamas while also prioritizing the recovery of hostages has required delicate balancing on Israel’s part — “holding more than one competing thought in your head at the same time,” as she put it.

“Making every effort possible was critical, both morally and politically,” Rudman said.

Israel’s vow to resume the war is at cross-purposes with Arab countries who negotiated the hostage release and want the temporary truce to evolve into a more lasting cease-fire.

The international aid agencies who are Gaza’s lifeline maintain that four days is not enough time to deliver supplies to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced from homes and in some cases sheltering at U.N. schools and hospitals.

Israel, with U.S. support, has adamantly rejected calls for a formal cease-fire, saying it is determined to eliminate Hamas, whatever the cost.

No Americans were among those freed Friday, but President Biden said his government would “not stop” in that quest. U.S. officials had said they expected three U.S. citizens — including a 4-year-old girl — to be among the first 50 hostages to be released. At least seven other Americans are thought to be among the hostages, but it is not clear whether they are civilians or serve in the Israeli army.

For the United States, the crisis has posed an array of problems. The Biden administration has enthusiastically embraced Israel and endorsed its “right to self-defense” in attacking Hamas. But as Israel’s bombardment of Gaza took an increasingly devastating toll, President Biden and his senior officials — at first privately and now more publicly — have urged Israel to take steps to avoid civilian casualties and called for a series of “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting to allow food, medicine, water and fuel into Gaza.

Israel has only relented, in limited occasions, under intense pressure, administration officials said.

“Far too many Palestinians have been killed,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said this month in the strongest criticism of Israel that he has publicly voiced.

U.S. officials have refused to say Israel has violated international humanitarian law or the rules of war, but they are increasingly isolated globally in that position. In addition to standing at odds with Arab allies, U.S. policy has led to deep divisions in American society, within the administration itself and inside the Democratic Party.

Numerous employees from the State Department and other government agencies have signed petitions and letters of complaint opposing the policy. And polls show Biden has lost substantial support among young likely voters over his pro-Israel stance, with sympathy for Palestinians and their decades-long quest for an independent state gaining significantly.

International pressure was certain to grow.

“I reiterate my call for a long-standing humanitarian cease-fire,” Philippe Lazzarinni, commissioner of the U.N.’s agency that oversees Palestinian refugee issues, said at a news conference Friday in East Jerusalem. “People need respite, they deserve calm, they deserve to sleep at night without being anxious whether they will make it through.”

Lazzarinni, who has made two visits to Gaza in recent days, described abysmal conditions: human waste mounting in streets and nearly a million people crowded into makeshift shelters and schools.

Like nearly everyone huddled in Gaza’s ruins, Palestinian activist Mai Rajab hoped for a more durable pause than this one, which fell on her birthday.

“I wish I could celebrate, but I don’t have ingredients for a cake!” she said. “But anyway, the real celebration happens when it’s a total cease-fire.”

Bulos reported from Jerusalem, Wilkinson from Washington and King from Berlin.


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