Romina Shvalb, 42, at the dining room table with posters showing her sister Carina Engelbert, 51, with her husband Ronen and daughters Mika, 18, and Yuval, 11. The family was taken from Kibbutz Nir Oz and are believed to be held hostage in Gaza. Image Credit: Washington Post

JERUSALEM: War-shattered families in Israel and Gaza woke to a hopeful-but-agonising limbo on Wednesday after the early-hours approval of a deal between Israel and Hamas to pause fighting and exchange captives. The agreement allows the release of at least 50 Israeli hostages for 150 Palestinian prisoners during a four-day pause of combat operations in Gaza.

A Gaza truce and hostage release will start on Friday morning, Qatar’s foreign ministry spokesman said.

“The pause will begin at 7am on Friday ... and the first batch of civilian hostages will be handed over at approximately 4pm on the same day,” Majed Al Ansari said Thursday, adding that the number of people freed will be thirteen.

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“I am excited and hope that it will be my family,” said Romina Shvalb, whose sister, brother-in-law and their two daughters are believed to be among the 240 abducted when Hamas fighters raided several Israeli towns on October 7.

The deal was pushed back overnight, Israeli officials said, drawing out the anguish for families of the about 240 hostages seized by Hamas militants on October 7 when they staged the worst attacks in Israel's history.

"We've already been on an emotional rollercoaster for 47 days and today is no different," said Eyal Kalderon, 38, whose cousin Ofer was kidnapped along with his two children, Erez, who turned 12 in captivity, and Sahar who is 16.

"We are hoping at the very least that the children will come back as soon as possible," he said. "Time is running out and they can't wait any more - not them, not the elderly people, nor those who are sick or wounded."

Standing at his side, Kalderon's twin sister Yael said they were trying to keep their hopes in check but it was difficult with the situation in flux.

"We are trying not to get our hopes up too much and we will only be able to breathe easy when we see them with our own eyes, with the Red Cross," she told AFPTV.

"But it's hard to ignore the news and it shakes you up."

The siblings said their cousin Ofer would be marking his 53rd birthday in captivity in Gaza on Saturday, after his son Erez turned 12 on October 27.

"For Ofer, the best present will be knowing that his children are coming back to us here, and will be with their mum Hadass and with the whole loving family," Eyal Kalderon said.

Under the terms of the truce agreement, 50 hostages from Israel will initially be exchanged for 150 Palestinian prisoners, with the potential for further swaps on the same ratio.

Israeli authorities have released a list of 300 eligible detainees, without specifying the order of release.

Only God knows...

In Beit Safafa, in annexed East Jerusalem, the mother of one Palestinian prisoner said tension had skyrocketed since the postponement.

"Only God knows how bad I feel," said Fatina Salman, whose daughter Malak was arrested on her way to school seven years ago for trying to stab a policeman in Jerusalem.

"I can't think any more, we are waiting and I'm scared something will go wrong," she said.

"My health is poor and every development stresses me," she said, her voice trembling. "I haven't slept since we were told about an agreement, I worry all the time."

The hostages will not be released in a single group, Israeli and US officials said, and they are likely to be transferred to the International Committee of the Red Cross in small numbers.

For each hostage returned to Israel, the country will release three Palestinians — women or teenagers — it now holds in its prisons. Israel has said it could extend the pause in bombing by a day for every additional 10 hostages who are released after the initial group of 50.

Israel will allow more fuel and humanitarian aid — up to 300 trucks a day, according to one aid official — into Gaza during the pause, US officials said. An Israeli military official said conditions would not permit any of the hundreds of thousands of displaced from heavily bombed northern Gaza to return to the area.

US officials said they hoped the agreement would shift the dynamic of the war and perhaps lead to a broader ceasefire. Israel had for weeks refused to slow its military assault despite entreaties from allies, hostage families and humanitarian agencies in Gaza.

But even as Israelis celebrated the release of at least some hostages, military and political leaders insisted that the pause did not mean peace.

“We are at war, and we will continue the war until we achieve all our goals: to destroy Hamas, return all our hostages and ensure that nobody in Gaza can threaten Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared in a recorded statement released during the cabinet debate on the deal.

Hospitals readied

Six hospitals in Israel readied special units of paediatricians and mental health counselors to receive the hostages. The hostages and their families are to be housed in isolated, dedicated facilities and the hospitals would be barred from releasing information or photographs to the public, according to the Israeli Ministry of Health. Social workers are to accompany the children from the moment of their release.

“The important thing is that we managed to produce a formula that will carry momentum,” said Majed Al Ansari, an adviser to the Qatari prime minister and a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

During the pause, Hamas fighters on the ground in Gaza are expected to locate and identify more of the hostages in the territory, according to Al Ansari. Some hostages are believed to be held by fighters affiliated with other militant groups, local gang members and individuals. Hamas has said that some hostages were killed as Israeli operations escalated in Gaza, but verifying that information has so far been impossible.

Court rejects appeal

The final legal steps of enacting the agreement began Wednesday with the publication of a list of about 300 Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons. Israeli law allows citizens who have been victims of militant attacks to challenge the release of prisoners before the Supreme Court. At least one advocacy group, the Almagor Terror Victims Association, filed a petition on Wednesday to block the deal, according to Israeli media.

The court rejected the appeal Wednesday evening. The jurists have never previously blocked a prisoner release deal.

The number of Palestinians held by Israel has swelled in the weeks since the start of the conflict. Most have been swept up in Israeli raids in the West Bank. Those potentially eligible for release under the deal include about 200 teenage boys and 75 women, according to a Palestinian human rights group.