Israel and Hamas have reached a deal for a four-day pause in fighting and the release of at least 50 women and children held hostage in Gaza, marking a major diplomatic breakthrough nearly seven weeks after the start of a conflict that has spiraled into a grave humanitarian crisis in the enclave.

The deal, as laid out by key negotiator Qatar in a statement, would see hostages held captive by Hamas released in exchange for a number of Palestinian women and children in Israeli jails. The truce, meanwhile, would also allow the entry of “a larger number of humanitarian convoys and relief aid,” the statement said.

The starting time of the pause in fighting would be announced within the next 24 hours, the statement added. An Israeli official told CNN Wednesday that the truce is slated to begin at 10 a.m. local time (3 a.m. ET) on Thursday.

There is an option for the pause to last as long as 10 days, but Israeli officials believe it is unlikely to last that long.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said when the deal was approved that for every additional 10 hostages who are released, there will be an additional day of a pause in the fighting.

The US and Israel will also both pause drone flights over Gaza for six hours each day as part of the deal to secure the release of 50 women and children hostages from Gaza, deputy national security adviser Jon Finer told CNN.

A sign illuminates a square in Tel Aviv calling for the release of Israelis held hostage in the Gaza Strip since the October 7 attack by Hamas militants, on November 21, 2023, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian armed group.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on November 21 that accepting a deal for the release of hostages taken in the Hamas attacks of October 7 was “a difficult decision but it’s a right decision”.

Qatar’s lead negotiator, Minister of State, Mohammed Al-Khulaifi said the agreement should prompt the international community to “seize this brief window of opportunity to generate further momentum for the diplomatic track.”

The announcement has been greeted with relief and heightened anticipation from the families of those taken hostage, who now await further news about their loved ones.

It has also been met with positive reaction on the international stage. Egyptian President Abdelfattah El-Sisi reiterated Egypt’s commitment to finding a “sustainable” solution for the Palestinian people, while Qatar’s prime minister said his country hopes the development will establish “a comprehensive and sustainable agreement that will put an end to the war and the bloodshed.”

Jordan’s foreign ministry said it hopes the foreign-mediated deal will be a “step” that leads to a “complete cessation of the war” in Gaza. In Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov welcomed the deal, saying that Moscow views it “positively” and describing it as “the first good news from Gaza in a very long time.”

How the agreement will unfold

A source familiar with how hostages are expected to leave Gaza said that the first swap is expected to take place Thursday 10 a.m. Israeli time. Some 50 Israel hostages – including some with dual nationalities – are expected to be released over the four-day pause. Ten is the minimum number of hostages to be released each day, but that could be higher.

“The first swap is the most crucial to see that the mechanism is working as was agreed,” the source said.

Every evening before the next day’s release, Israel and Hamas will give the Red Cross the list of hostage and prisoner names being released the next day, they added.

Hostages will be brought by the Red Cross to Rafah where they will be met by specially trained Israeli soldiers. They will verify that the hostages released were the ones expected and on the list. The families of the hostages will not be notified until the identities of the hostages released have been confirmed, the source said.

Hostages will then be taken by helicopter to several designated hospitals in Israel where there will be special areas and rooms for the hostages, closed to the public. There, their families will finally be able to see them after over six weeks in captivity.

Hamas is holding 239 hostages captive in Gaza, including foreign nationals from 26 countries, according to figures from the Israeli military. The mass abductions at gunpoint took place during October 7, when Hamas militants struck across the border in a coordinated and bloody surprise attack killing around 1,200 people – the largest such attack on Israel since the country’s founding in 1948.

Prior to the deal, only a handful of hostages had been released.

Israel responded to the attack by declaring war against Hamas and imposing a blockade on Gaza that cut off supplies of food, water, medicines and fuel, while launching a relentless air and ground assault. Some 12,700 people have been killed in Gaza since October 7, according to data from the Palestinian health ministry in the West Bank, which draws on information from Hamas-run health authorities.

The newly announced deal followed weeks of negotiations that included the United States and Egypt, and was approved by Israel’s cabinet in the early hours of Wednesday morning following a six-hour meeting an Israeli official described as “tense and emotional.”

Some 150 Palestinian prisoners would be released over four days during the initial hostage release if terms are met, the government said.

Just hours away from the first set of hostages being released from Gaza, US officials have a working list of 10 hostages that they believe are likely to be released on day one, a source familiar says. It was not clear whether any of the three American hostages – including 3-year-old Abigail Edan – would be released on the first day.

The deal is structured in such a way that each day, a group of hostages to be released would be handed off to the Red Cross; the Red Cross would then take the group to a designated border point, which will largely depend on the location of those hostages, the source familiar said.

Many of the first 50 hostages are expected to come out through Egypt, they said. The first two days of the hostage release will be treated as a “testing period,” the source said, to make sure the process is working. By day three, there is expected to be intense discussions about a potential second phase of the hostage release beyond the initial group of 50.

The deal followed mounting pressure on the Israeli government from the families of the hostages, who have demanded answers and action from Netanyahu. It also comes amid growing international pressure for more humanitarian support for the people of Gaza.

Hostages’ families anxiously await the release

Even as the details of the release remained unclear, some family members of the hostages held by Hamas expressed relief – and anticipation as they waited to learn whether their loved ones would be included in the negotiated release.

Anat Moshe Shoshany, whose grandmother was kidnapped from kibbutz Nir Oz on the back of a moped, said hearing of the hostage deal gave her “so much hope.”

“I really do hope to see someone walking out of there alive,” Shoshany said. “We want a chance to see our loved ones back. This is all we want and I really hope this is just the first step in this mess.”

Liz Hirsh Naftali, the great-aunt of Abigail Edan, the 3-year-old US citizen being held hostage by Hamas, told CNN that the situation has been “excruciating.”

“We have spent the last seven weeks, seven weeks, worrying, wondering, praying, hoping,” she said.