By Rami Amichay
PETAH TIKVA (Reuters) – Ohad Munder, who spent his ninth birthday as a hostage in Gaza, was among four young children freed from captivity on Friday, as he returned with his mother and grandmother to Israel on the first day of a planned four-day truce and prisoner exchange.
Footage released by Schneider Children’s Medical Center showed Ohad running down a hospital corridor straight into his father’s open arms, as the pair were reunited after almost 50 days without any contact. His father then lifts him up.
The four children were all in relatively good condition, Gilat Livni, the centre’s Director of Pediatrics told reporters. Some spoke of what they had been through, she said, but declined to provide further details.
“They shared experiences, we were up with them until late at might and it was interesting, upsetting and moving,” said Livni.
More of Ohad’s relatives can’t wait to reunite with him.
“I’m waiting to see Ohad and can’t wait to give him his Rubik’s cube which I know he really loved and he probably missed it so much,” said his 27-year-old cousin Roni Haviv, as she watched footage of Ohad, wearing a Spiderman baseball cap being handed over by Hamas fighters to Red Cross staff.
“That’s the first thing he takes everywhere he goes,” she added.
Hospital photos later showed Ohad playing with a Rubik’s Cube and blowing bubbles.
Ohad’s father said mother Keren, 54, and grandmother Ruth, 78, were all fine and healthy. But Ohad’s grandfather, 78-year-old Avraham Munder remained in captivity in Gaza.
The 13 Israeli hostages released by Hamas fighters included sisters aged 2 and 4 and their mother, a 5-year-old girl and her mother, as well as elderly women. They were among around 240 people abducted by gunmen from the Islamist movement Hamas who rampaged through southern Israel on Oct. 7.
As well as the Israeli hostages, 10 Thais and one Filipino, who were taken captive at the same time, were also freed under a separate agreement, Qatari mediators said.
After their release, hostages underwent initial medical checks and were taken to be reunited with their families.
“We’ve all anxiously awaited their return and are elated to see the day that they have come home to us,” said Yosef Mendelovich, associate director of the ministry of health.
The rest of a group of at least 50 Israeli hostages due to be exchanged under a Qatari-brokered agreement are expected to be freed in the coming days and more hostages could be added if the truce deal is extended.
Egyptian security sources said they had received the names of 14 Israeli women and children from Hamas to be released on Saturday and were waiting for more details on when the hostages would be handed over to Egyptian authorities.
Israeli security officials were reviewing the list, though the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not confirm the number or timing of the expected release.
For the families of the hostages, there was happiness mingled with concern for those who remained in Gaza.
“I am happy I received my family back, it’s allowed to feel joy and it’s allowed to shed a tear. That’s a human thing,” said Yoni Katz Asher, whose wife Doron and children Raz and Aviv were freed on Friday. “But I am not celebrating, I will not celebrate until the last of the hostages returns home.”
“I want to emphasise, our children, our fathers, our mothers, our sisters, are currently in captivity. There are people whose hearts are broken at this time, and I want to make sure that all the hostages, until the last one, will return home,” he said.
Israeli leaders have sworn to free the rest of the hostages as the military pursues an invasion of Gaza launched in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, which killed around 1,200 people, according to an Israeli tally.
The military campaign has killed around 14,000 Palestinians, according to Palestinian medical authorities and reduced much of Gaza to rubble.
For the moment, the hostages are being kept away from the media while their condition is assessed and for those whose relatives have not come home, the wait continues in a conflicting swirl of feelings.
“The emotions are mixed emotions,” said Shelly Shem Tov, the mother Omer Shem Tov, 21, who had attended an outdoor dance festival that was targeted in the attack, and was among those taken hostage. He was not among those released on Friday.
“I’m excited for the families who today are going to hug their loved ones. I am jealous. And I am sad. Mostly sad that Omer is still not coming home,” she said in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12.
(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Ari Rabinovitch, Henriette Chacar and Eli Berlzon; Writing by James Mackenzie, Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Daniel Wallis and Mark Potter)