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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - GAZA — A truce between Israel and Hamas appears to be taking effect on Friday despite a barrage of Israeli artillery fire and sirens warning of rockets from Gaza in the minutes after it was due to begin at 7 a.m. local time.
CNN journalists in the southern Israel city of Sderot said the sounds of heavy weapons fire stopped around 7:18 a.m. (12:18 a.m. ET). They heard what sounded like small arms fire inside Gaza about 20 minutes later, but artillery fire, airstrikes and rockets appear to have stopped.
The four-day pause, the first in a 48-day-old war, set the stage for the exchange of dozens of hostages held by militants in Gaza in return for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.
The truce-for-hostages deal was reached in weeks of intense indirect negotiations, with Qatar, the United States and Egypt serving as mediators. If it holds, it would mark the first significant break in fighting since Israel declared war on Hamas seven weeks ago.
The deal also provides for more aid to reach southern Gaza, where Palestinians are facing severe shortages of food, water, medicine and electricity.
Both sides will release women and children first. Israel said the truce would be extended an extra day for every additional 10 hostages freed.
A first group of 13 women and children held by Hamas will be freed Friday afternoon, according to Majed al-Ansari, the spokesman of the Qatari foreign ministry. Three Palestinian prisoners, also women and minors, are to be released for every freed hostage.
Israel’s Justice Ministry published a list of 300 prisoners eligible to be released, mainly teenagers detained over the past year for rock-throwing and other minor offenses.
Media reports said Hamas had also agreed to release non-Israelis, including 23 Thai nationals. Thailand's foreign minister told reporters in Bangkok he had not yet been able to confirm the reports.
The truce began at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT), involving a comprehensive ceasefire in north and south Gaza.
A Reuters correspondent near the northern part of Gaza heard no Israeli air force activity overhead, and saw no tell-tale contrails typically left by Palestinian rocket launches.
Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV reported that no sounds of bombing were heard in Gaza since the start of the truce. But it said Israeli forces were preventing residents from returning to their homes in the densely populated northern part of the enclave.
Soldiers opened fire in one incident, Al Jazeera said, but there was no indication that it resulted in casualties.
There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military, which had earlier issued a call on Palestinians to stay away from the northern Gaza Strip, which it described as a "dangerous war zone".
A Reuters correspondent saw dozens of Israeli military vehicles, including tanks, moving away from the Gaza Strip. Several soldiers in the armored column said they had been pulled out of the Palestinian territory.
Sirens sounded in two Israeli villages outside the southern Gaza Strip, warning of possible incoming Palestinian rockets. An Israeli government spokesman said Hamas had carried out a rocket launch in violation of the truce but there were no immediate reports of damage.The return of hostages could lift spirits in Israel, where their plight has gripped the country. Families of the hostages have staged mass demonstrations to pressure the government to bring them home. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said it notified the families of hostages listed for release Friday.
Separately, the Israeli military dropped leaflets over southern Gaza, warning hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians who sought refuge there not to try to return to their homes in the northern half of the territory, the focus of Israel's ground offensive.
Israel has said it would block attempts to return. Despite the warning, hundreds of Palestinians were seen walking north Friday.
In Khan Younis town in southern Gaza, where streets were filled with people, Palestinian Khaled Abu Anzah told Reuters: "We are full of hope, optimism, and pride in our resistance. We are proud of our achievements, despite the pain this caused."
Israel's northern border with Lebanon was quiet on Friday, a day after Lebanon's Hezbollah group, an ally of Hamas, carried out the highest number of attacks in one day since fighting there began Oct. 8.
Hezbollah has not publicly commented on whether it was respecting the cease-fire, but they were widely expected to halt their attacks.
Fighting had raged in the hours leading up to the truce, with officials inside the Hamas-ruled enclave saying a hospital in Gaza City was among the targets bombed. Both sides also signaled the pause would be temporary before fighting resumes.
The Indonesian hospital was reeling under relentless bombing, operating without light and filled with bedridden old people and children too weak to be moved, Gaza health officials said. Al-Jazeera quoted Mounir El Barsh, the Gaza health ministry director, as saying a patient, a wounded woman, was killed and three others injured.
Additional aid would start flowing into Gaza and the first hostages, including elderly women, would be freed at 4 p.m. (1400 GMT), with the total number rising to 50 over the four days, the Qatari foreign ministry spokesperson said in Doha.
Aid trucks were entering the Gaza Strip from Egypt around 1-1/2 hours after the truce began, TV footage showed. Two of the trucks, representing Egyptian organisations, sported banners that said, "Together for Humanity." Another said: "For our brothers in Gaza."
Egypt has said 130,000 liters of diesel and four trucks of gas will be delivered daily to Gaza when the truce starts, and that 200 trucks of aid would enter Gaza daily.
Palestinians were expected to be released from Israeli jails, the Qatari spokesperson told reporters. "We all hope that this truce will lead to a chance to start a wider work to achieve a permanent truce."
Hamas confirmed on its Telegram channel that all hostilities from its forces would cease.
But Abu Ubaida, spokesperson for Hamas' armed wing, later referred to "this temporary truce" in a video message that called for an "escalation of the confrontation with (Israel) on all resistance fronts", including the Israeli-occupied West Bank where violence has surged since the Gaza war erupted almost seven weeks ago.
Israel's military also said fighting would resume soon.
"This will be a short pause, at the conclusion of which the war (and) fighting will continue with great might and will generate pressure for the return of more hostages. At least two months of warfare are expected," Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told naval commandos on Thursday, according to a Defence Ministry statement.
"Control over northern Gaza is the first step of a long war, and we are preparing for the next stages," Israeli military spokesperson Daniel Hagari said.
Israel launched its devastating invasion of Gaza after gunmen from Hamas burst across the border fence on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and seizing about 240 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.
Since then, Israel has rained bombs on the tiny enclave, killing some 14,000 Gazans, around 40% of them children, according to Palestinian health authorities. Hundreds of thousands of Gaza's 2.3 million people have fled their homes to escape the violence, but conditions are becoming more desperate.
"People are exhausted and are losing hope in humanity," UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA's Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said on Thursday, having seen "unspeakable suffering" during a visit to Gaza.
"They need respite, they deserve to sleep without being anxious about whether they will make it through the night. This is the bare minimum anyone should be able to have." Agencies
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