Nearly seven weeks into the war, Israel and Hamas have agreed on a deal that would see the return of 150 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails in exchange for the release of at least 50 women and children held in Gaza, during a four-day pause in fighting, bringing hope to many families.
The first hostages were initially expected to be released as early as Thursday, but the Israel National Security Council said on that day no hostages would be released before Friday.
The reasons behind the delay are unclear, but one Israeli official familiar with the matter downplayed its seriousness, citing “fairly minor implementation details.”
The Palestinian prisoners concerned are women and children, Hamas said Wednesday, adding that the agreement also involves the entry of hundreds of trucks carrying aid relief, medical supplies and fuel to all parts of the besieged territory.
The Israeli government on Wednesday published a list of 300 Palestinian prisoners for possible release, as Israel is offering a potential second phase of exchanges.
The list includes the ages of the prisoners, and the charges on which they are being held – throwing stones and “harming regional security” are among the most common.
Others are listed as detained for supporting illegal terror organizations, illegal weapons charges, incitement, and at least two accusations of attempted murder. Some of the people are listed as being members of Hamas and other Islamic militant groups, but many of the prisoners are not listed as belonging to any organization.
Most of the Palestinian prisoners listed as eligible for release are male teenagers aged 16 to 18 – children under the United Nations definition – although a handful are as young as 14. Some 33 are women, according to a CNN count.
This release will constitute a fraction of the Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
One radio station in the West Bank city of Ramallah has for 20 years been a way for Palestinian families to try to maintain a connection with relatives in detention. Callers send in voice notes to radio presenter Murad Abu Al Saba, which he then broadcasts on Radio Ajyal.
“How are you, Auntie Hannadi? I love you,” a young girl is heard saying on a voice note played on the radio’s airwaves from Al Saba’s phone. “When are you going to be released from jail?” the girl asks.
The young girl’s aunt is a Palestinian activist who was arrested by Israeli authorities – along with thousands of others – after Hamas’ deadly October 7 attacks.
“We have three phone lines here to receive messages from the families of prisoners,” Al Saba, the presenter, told CNN, adding that due to the volume of calls, some people had failed to get through.
“So we have started making promo announcements,” he said, “if you can’t get through, send us a voice note over WhatsApp.”
The families have no way of knowing if the prisoners get to hear their messages, but that doesn’t stop them from sending them.
Another family – revered by many Palestinians but deemed a threat by the state of Israel – also awaits the return of its loved ones.
Speaking to CNN at her home in Ramallah, Iman Barghouti prays for the release of her husband Nael, and sister-in-law Hannan.
Hannan and one of her sons were arrested before Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, and three other sons were detained after October 7. They are held under administrative detention, which means they are being held without knowing the charges against them, and without an ongoing legal process.
Iman said neither she nor Hannan were involved in the politics of this war, yet they suffer its consequences.
Now a grandmother, Hannan is on the Israeli list of those eligible to come home under the hostage deal. Her sons remain in prison.
“They (Hannan’s grandchildren) are waiting to see their grandmother,” Iman told CNN. “She has a beautiful relationship with them, she loves everybody.”
Amid Iman’s optimism at Hannan’s potential release, she is beginning to hope that her husband, Nael el Barghouti – the longest-serving Palestinian political prisoner – could also be freed in a swap, although he is not among the 300 prisoners listed by Israel.
The announcement of the deal between Hamas and Israel was a “happy day for us,” Iman said.
Nael has been in and out of prison since he was first arrested 44 years ago, in 1978, for engaging in attacks against the Israeli military. He was released in the 2011 Israel-Hamas deal, which saw 1,100 Palestinians exchanged for one Israeli soldier held by Hamas for five years, Gilad Shalit. Nael was re-arrested by Israeli forces in 2014 for “Hamas membership,” according to Israeli media, and has since been serving a life sentence.
Around 8,300 Palestinian prisoners are currently held in Israeli jails, said Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Commission for Detainees and Ex-Prisoners’ Affairs.
More than 3,000 of them are being held in what Israel calls “administrative detention,” Fares told CNN, adding that this means they are being held without knowing the charges against them, and without an ongoing legal process.
Most of the prisoners are men, Fares said, adding that there are also about 85 women and 350 children in detention.
Israel has stepped up its arrests since Hamas’ attacks on October 7. Up to 2,070 arrests were documented in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem in that month alone, according to the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society, a non-governmental organization dedicated to addressing the concerns of Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons. That figure includes 145 children and 55 women.
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh claimed to Reuters last week that Israel had been ramping up arrests ahead of a hostage deal. “Israel is preparing for an exchange of prisoners, and they are arresting as many people as they can simply because they are preparing for such a deal,” Shtayyeh said.
This week’s diplomatic breakthrough offers a glimmer of hope for the families of Palestinian prisoners, as well as those of Israeli hostages.
Hamas is holding 236 hostages in Gaza, including foreign nationals from 26 countries, according to the latest figures from the Israeli military. The abductions took place on October 7, when Hamas militants launched their brutal attack on Israel, killing at least 1,200 people.
Four hostages have been freed so far – two American women and two Israeli women. An Israeli soldier who was abducted by Hamas was rescued by Israeli forces, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said.
While the first phase of the deal would include the release of 150 prisoners in four stages over four days, the Israeli Cabinet Secretariat said, more Palestinians could potentially be released from the list of 300 detainees, in exchange for at least 10 Israeli abductees being handed over to Israeli security forces each day.
Correction: This story has been updated to clarify the dates when Hannan Barghouti and one of her sons were arrested