Hopes rise for Thai hostages

Hopes rise for Thai hostages

Israel, Hamas agree ceasefire, exchange

Posters featuring a picture with the word 'kidnapped' are placed on a wall as the families and supporters of hostages held in Gaza by Hamas gather to raise awareness and demand their immediate release in Tel Aviv, Israel November 22, 2023. (REUTERS photo)
Posters featuring a picture with the word 'kidnapped' are placed on a wall as the families and supporters of hostages held in Gaza by Hamas gather to raise awareness and demand their immediate release in Tel Aviv, Israel November 22, 2023. (REUTERS photo)

Thai workers held hostage during the Israel-Gaza war are expected to be released soon after Israel and Hamas agreed to pause hostilities and swap hostages for prisoners.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said on Wednesday he was informed that Israel and Hamas had agreed to a ceasefire and this will be an opportunity to evacuate the Thai hostages from conflict zones once they are released.

He said the ceasefire should pave the way for the release of the hostages, though no one knows whether the war will resume after the ceasefire.

He said Thailand is also trying to hold talks with Qatar to evacuate Thais through that country while several other countries are also helping with the repatriation of Thais. "We are confident there will be good news," Mr Srettha said.

Mr Srettha also said he did not want Thai workers remaining in Israel to return to working near conflict zones during the ceasefire.

"The government disagrees with them returning to risky areas, but we cannot force them. If they decide to do so, they have to take care of themselves," the prime minister said.

After more than six weeks of war, the Israeli government and Hamas announced on Wednesday that they would uphold a brief ceasefire in the Gaza Strip to allow for the release of 50 hostages Hamas captured during its assault on Israel last month.

The hostages were seized from homes along Israel's border, as well as from military bases and a large outdoor music festival. They include civilians, soldiers, people with disabilities, children, grandparents and a nine-month-old baby.

The captives also included people from more than 40 countries, at least 20 Thai farmworkers and at least one Palestinian resident of Israel.

The ceasefire decision, first announced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office in a WhatsApp message, involves a pause of at least four days in the fighting in Gaza. If it holds, it would be the longest halt in hostilities since Hamas' Oct 7 attacks prompted Israel to begin its bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza.

"The Israeli government is committed to the return home of all abductees," the government said.

It added: "Tonight, the government approved the outline for the first stage of achieving this goal, according to which at least 50 abductees -- women and children -- will be released for four days, during which there will be a lull in the fighting. The release of every 10 additional abductees will result in an additional day of respite."

In its own statement on Telegram, Hamas affirmed the deal, saying, "After many days of difficult and complex negotiations, we announce, with the help and blessing of God, that we have reached a humanitarian truce."

Hamas added that the 50 Israelis would be freed in exchange for the release of 150 Palestinian women and detainees younger than 19 held in Israeli jails.

The Israeli hostages may not be released until today at the earliest to allow time for Israeli judges to review potential legal challenges to an agreement, according to an Israeli official.

Qatar, the lead mediator of the deal, did not immediately comment.

Under the terms of the deal, according to the Hamas statement, 50 Israeli women and children would be freed in exchange for the release of 150 Palestinian women and other detainees younger than 19.

Its statement said Israel had also agreed to let in more aid supplies to Gaza; continue to allow civilians to evacuate northern Gaza; and halt its flights over Gaza except for a six-hour window every day.

Israel's statement did not include those details, but the two officials said that Israel had agreed that Israeli troops would remain in their current positions. Civilians currently in southern Gaza will not be allowed to return to the north, the officials added.

But the Hamas statement also said, "While we now announce the arrival of the truce agreement, we affirm that our hands will remain on the trigger, and our triumphant brigades will remain on the lookout to defend our people and to defeat the occupation and aggression."

US President Joe Biden also sounded optimistic on Tuesday. "We're now very close, very close," he told reporters at the White House on Tuesday morning. "We could bring some of these hostages home very soon."

The United States has been engaged for weeks in indirect talks with Israel, Hamas and Qatar to secure an agreement.

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