A four-day truce in the Israel-Hamas war was set to start Friday with hostages to be released in exchange for prisoners, the first major reprieve in seven weeks of conflict that have claimed thousands of lives.
After prolonged negotiations, deliberations and delay, the pause was due to begin at 7am, silencing guns that have raged since Hamas's murderous raids into Israel on October 7.
The start of the truce is set to be followed by the release of a first group of 13 hostages being held in Gaza, and an undefined number of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, according to Qatari peacebrokers.
For Gaza's two million-plus residents, the deal spells a respite from relentless Israeli bombardments, which the strip's Hamas government says have killed about 15,000 people and displaced countless more.
For many Palestinian families, the truce comes too late.
"The living here are the ones who are dead," said Fida Zayed, whose 20-year-old son Udai was killed in a recent air strike, told AFP.
"The last thing he said to me was that he was waiting for the truce on Friday," she told AFP. "He asked me to prepare him a feast of rice and chicken."
"I hope me and my children die here so we don't have to mourn each other," she said.
Qatari officials said the "first batch" of 13 hostages released would be women and children from the same families.
At least 50 hostages are expected to be released over the four days.
Teams of Israeli trauma experts and medics will await them -- along with specially trained soldiers who, according to guidelines, will promise to keep them safe and carry a child's favourite food item, be it pizza or chicken schnitzel.
AFP has confirmed the identities of 210 of the roughly 240 people abducted during cross-border attacks by Hamas on military posts, communities and a desert music festival.
At least 35 of those taken hostage were children, with 18 of them aged 10 or under at the time of the Hamas attack.
Little is publicly known about the conditions the hostages have been held in.
"Given the barbaric nature of the attacks and captivity we can only prepare for worst case scenarios," said Moty Cristal, a retired Israeli military official with experience in hostage negotiations.
Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails would also be released on Friday, Qatari foreign ministry spokesperson Majed Al Ansari said, adding a list of names had been approved, without saying how many.
The agreement entailed a "complete ceasefire with no attacks from the air or the ground" and the skies clear of drones to "allow for the hostage release to happen in a safe environment", Ansari said.
The armed wing of Hamas confirmed the cessation of hostilities would start at 7:00 am under the deal that is also intended to provide aid to Gazans struggling to survive with shortages of food, water and fuel.
It said three Palestinian prisoners would be released for each one of the hostages.
'Emotional roller coaster'
The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was in contact with the families of the hostages after receiving "a first list of names" of those due to be released. It did not specify who was on it.
Israeli officials say about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed and around 240 taken hostage in the October 7 attacks.
"We've already been on an emotional roller coaster for 47 days and today is no different," said Eyal Kalderon, a cousin of Ofer Kalderon, who is among those held captive in Gaza.
Asked if he expected kidnapped American toddler Abigail Mor Idan to be in the first batch of hostages to be released, US President Joe Biden said: "I'm keeping my fingers crossed."
Palestinian prisoners will be released from three jails in Israel and the occupied West Bank, then taken to the Ofer military camp on buses, an Israeli official told AFP on condition of anonymity, adding that they were expected to be freed in the evening.
Most are from the West Bank but five are from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Governments around the world have welcomed the agreement, with some expressing hope it will lead to a lasting end to the war.
"This cannot be just a pause before the massacre starts all over again," Riyad Mansour, Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council.
Israeli officials, however, say the truce will be only temporary.
"We are not ending the war. We will continue until we are victorious," Israel's chief of staff, Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi, told troops he visited in Gaza.
Ahead of the expected pause, fighting raged. Explosions were heard and heavy grey clouds hovered over northern Gaza, much of which has been reduced to rubble.
Israel's aerial bombardment continued on targets in the southern city of Khan Yunis, sending red and yellow fireballs and immense columns of black smoke into the air.
"I think there are still about 20 people under the rubble," said one Palestinian looking for survivors under a destroyed building east of Khan Yunis.
In Gaza's largest refugee camp Jabalia, a Palestinian doctor said at least 27 people had been killed and 93 wounded in a UN-run school where thousands of displaced civilians were sheltering.
The doctor blamed an Israeli strike. There was no immediate word from the Israeli military.
Under pressure to back up its claims that Hamas had a command centre under Gaza's Al-Shifa hospital, Israel's military escorted journalists to a tunnel shaft which soldiers said was part of a vast Hamas underground military network.
The army led reporters into underground facilities with air-conditioning, a toilet and what looked like a kitchenette.
Hamas and medical staff have denied a command centre is under Al-Shifa, Gaza's largest hospital.
Israeli forces arrested Al-Shifa's director Mohammad Abu Salmiya and other medical personnel, another doctor told AFP on Thursday.
On Israel's northern border, Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah said it had stepped up its attacks from south Lebanon, where Israeli bombardments killed seven of its fighters, including members of an elite unit.
Since the Israel-Hamas war began, deadly exchanges across the border have killed 109 people in Lebanon, most of them Hezbollah fighters, and nine people in Israel, most of them soldiers, raising fears of a broader conflict.