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What to know about the hostages still held by Hamas

Israelis gather to witness the first batch of released hostages being brought to Schneider Hospital via helicopter on Nov. 24.
Maya Levin for NPR
Israelis gather to witness the first batch of released hostages being brought to Schneider Hospital via helicopter on Nov. 24.

TEL AVIV, Israel — Joyful scenes of Israeli hostages freed and their tearful reunions with loved ones have dominated the news in Israel since last week's start of a temporary cease-fire deal with Hamas.

So far under that cease-fire, Hamas has released more than 80 of around 240 hostages Israel says Hamas seized in its Oct. 7 attack on Israel. In return, Israel has freed 180 Palestinian prisoners.

Of the 61 Israelis released so far, almost all are women and minors. In addition, foreign workers — mostly Thais — have been released in a separate deal.

Around 160 hostages remain in captivity. Perhaps 100 are Israeli civilians. Some of the rest are soldiers, seized when Hamas raided military bases in Israel. They may end up being held the longest. There are also dual Israeli American citizens — possibly including some soldiers, according to the U.S.

Israeli attacks have killed at least 13,300 people in Gaza since the start of the conflict, according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. Hospitals are without electricity. Food, water and fuel are in short supply. The U.N. says three-quarters of Gaza's 2.2 million people have been internally displaced by the conflict.

Here's what to know about who is still being held hostage and some of the possible complications for releasing more.

Who are the hostages held by Hamas?

Hamas hands over 11 Israeli hostages to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza City, Nov. 27.
/ Stringer/Anadolu via Getty Images
Stringer/Anadolu via Getty Images
Hamas hands over 11 Israeli hostages to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza City, Nov. 27.

Israel's army has said that Israeli civilians and foreigners — including U.S. citizens and more than two dozen Thai farm laborers — were among those captured in the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel. The attack killed some 1,200 people, Israeli authorities say.

A "substantial" number of Israeli soldiers were also seized, Israel's Haaretz newspaper quoted an army spokesman as saying on the day of the Hamas attack. The Israeli military has not specified how many soldiers were captured.

The hostages released so far are mainly Israeli women and minors, as well as a Filipino, a Russian-Israeli man and 19 Thais, mostly men.

The Israelis have reported losing weight during their seven weeks in captivity and say they've survived mostly on bread and rice, sleeping on rows of chairs. Many were held underground.

On Sunday, a 4-year-old girl, Abigail Mor Edan, a dual U.S. and Israeli citizen, was among those set free. U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the Biden administration believes eight or nine more Americans are still being held but the U.S. does not have "solid information on each and every one of them."

One Israeli captive, an 84-year-old woman released on Sunday, was flown by helicopter directly from Gaza to an Israeli hospital due to a serious medical condition, according to Israeli media reports.

Four hostages were released last month, before the temporary cease-fire, when Hamas freed two U.S. citizens and two Israeli women.

What is Hamas' history with hostage-taking?

Hamas has a history of involvement in hostage situations.

In 2006, Hamas abducted an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, to the Gaza Strip, holding him for more than five years before finally handing him over in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian and Israeli Arab prisoners.

Israel's current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in power then, too. Dennis Jett, a retired U.S. ambassador, told NPR last month that it "wasn't lost on Hamas" that such a steep price could be exacted for a high-value Israeli hostage.

In 2007, BBC journalist Alan Johnston was kidnapped by the Army of Islam, a Gaza-based jihadist group, and held for nearly four months, in what he described as "an appalling experience," before Hamas helped secure his release.

How are decisions made about how many hostages and prisoners to release?

Each day, Hamas draws up lists of hostages it is willing to release and Israel does the same with Palestinian prisoners. Israel releases three Palestinians for every Israeli hostage Hamas frees, according to the terms of the temporary cease-fire agreement.

Speaking on NPR's Morning Edition, Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, said, "It's not known why they arrived at this particular ratio, but it is clear that ... Hamas was asking for a lot more."

"In past exchanges, the ratio was much larger — for one Israeli soldier, there were hundreds of Palestinian prisoners," Telhami said. "Remember that it's very easy for Israel to arrest Palestinians. They are under occupation. Israel has a military. It can go into any town or village and arrest any number of people at any given time."

So far, all the prisoners released have been women or minors, and many who were detained on allegations they threw rocks or Molotov cocktails at troops. Human rights groups have criticized Israel's frequent detention of minors — often hundreds each year — and its process for holding people in detention for months or more without charges.

A Palestinian female prisoner hugs a relative in the occupied West Bank after being freed from an Israeli jail in exchange for Israeli hostages released by Hamas from the Gaza Strip,  Nov. 28.
Fadel Senna / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
A Palestinian female prisoner hugs a relative in the occupied West Bank after being freed from an Israeli jail in exchange for Israeli hostages released by Hamas from the Gaza Strip, Nov. 28.

"Most of them are lone wolves," Harel Chorev, a senior researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, says of those released so far, "people who tried to commit some sort of an attack but did not succeed."

Going forward, Cherov says, Hamas is likely to want the release of higher-profile prisoners and Israel is going to want higher-value hostages returned in exchange.

According to Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, there are 8,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including 3,200 who have been arrested since Oct. 7. That number, he says, includes 250 Palestinian children and 2,200 inmates held without charge in administrative detention.

How might the temporary cease-fire complicate more hostage and prisoner releases?

As the pool of hostages shrinks, Hamas could demand more prisoners, or higher-value ones in exchange for hostages it holds — either under the current deal or a future truce arrangement.

CIA Director William Burns arrived in Doha on Tuesday for meetings with Qatar's Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani and David Barnea, chief of Mossad, Israel's spy agency, a U.S. official tells NPR.

The meeting in Qatar, a key broker as the temporary cease-fire deal has unfolded, is focused on securing the release of more hostages, and partly about expanding the pause in fighting.

Barghouti notes that Gilad Shalit's release by Hamas in 2011 garnered the return of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Now, in exchange for the remaining Hamas captives, he says, "It's just natural that 8,000 Palestinian prisoners should also be released. Especially [because] many of those are simply civilians who have not even had any charges or any due legal process."

It's highly unlikely, however, that Israel would agree to such a deal.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.

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