Hamas released two American hostages, Judith Tai Raanan and her 17-year-old daughter, Natalie Raanan, on Friday nearly two weeks after launching a deadly attack in Israel and abducting around 200 people.
The US citizens were handed over at the border with Gaza and are now in the care of the Israel Defense Forces, IDF spokesperson Daniel Hagari said on Friday. They are currently on their way to an Israeli military base to be reunited with family, according to the office for Israel’s prime minister.
The Raanans are from Chicago and had been visiting relatives in Nahal Oz, a farming community in southern Israel, when they were taken hostage on October 7, according to their family.
During the attack, Hamas militants killed more than 1,400 people, including civilians and soldiers, according to Israeli authorities. It was the most deadly attack by militants in Israel’s 75-year history and revealed a staggering intelligence failure by the country’s security forces.
Israel has since responded by enacting a blockade on Gaza and launching a barrage of airstrikes into the Palestinian enclave, sparking a humanitarian crisis. Israeli airstrikes in Gaza have killed more than 4,100 people, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
They were released on “humanitarian grounds” because the mother is in poor health, the same source said. The release was the result of negotiations between Qatar and Hamas.
In a statement, Hamas spokesperson Abu Obaida said: “In response to Qatari efforts, Al-Qassam Brigades released two American citizens (a mother and her daughter) for humanitarian reasons, and to prove to the American people and the world that the claims made by Biden and his fascist administration are false and baseless.”
Qatar confirmed the release of the two American hostages and said they will “continue dialogue with Israel and Hamas in hope of releasing all civilian hostages from every nationality,” the spokesperson for Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Majid Al-Ansari said in a statement.
President Joe Biden said he is “overjoyed” that the two US citizens will “soon be reunited with their family,” and called for their privacy. Biden reiterated that his administration has been “working around-the-clock” to free Americans held hostage by Hamas.
“Jill and I have been holding close in our hearts all the families of unaccounted for Americans,” he said. “And, as I told those families when I spoke with them last week—we will not stop until we get their loved ones home. As President, I have no higher priority than the safety of Americans held hostage around the world.”
The news came after US President Joe Biden, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak flocked to Israel in recent days, amid growing pressure on world leaders to secure the release of the hostages.
A number of foreign nationals were among those kidnapped by Hamas, including people from the US, Mexico, Brazil and Thailand.
Information about the status, location and identity of all the hostages remains scarce. Some have been identified by families who recognize them from online videos, sparking desperate pleads for their return.
In a statement on Friday, Hamas said it is working with mediators in Egypt, Qatar and other “friendly countries” to release foreign nationals.
“This commitment remains resolute as we endeavor to enact our decision to release individuals of foreign nationalities under temporary custody, as and when security circumstances permit,” the statement said.
Representatives of the hostages have welcomed the release of the two Americans.
“We call on world leaders and the international community to exert their full power in order to act for the release of all the hostages and missing.”
Humanitarian crisis in Gaza deepens
An Israeli blockade of food, water, fuel and electricity is “going to kill many, many people” in Gaza, a senior aid official warned Friday, as Israel’s siege and bombardment of the enclave approached the two-week mark.
Relentless airstrikes have killed more than 4,100 people in Gaza, including at least 1,660 children, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. More than 13,000 have been injured and there are growing fears that millions of Palestinians could be permanently displaced.
Seventeen people were killed in the airstrike, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Former Michigan Congressman Justin Amash said several of his relatives were among the dead.
In a statement, the Patriarchate said that “targeting churches and their institutions, along with the shelters they provide to protect innocent citizens, especially children and women who have lost their homes due to Israeli airstrikes on residential areas over the past thirteen days, constitutes a war crime that cannot be ignored.”
The IDF on Friday acknowledged that “a wall of a church in the area was damaged” as a result of an IDF strike.
Meanwhile, seven hospitals and 21 primary care health centers had been rendered “out of service,” and 64 medical staff have been killed, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza said Friday.
The administration of Al-Quds Hospital in Gaza said on Friday that the Israeli military has demanded the immediate evacuation of the hospital in preparation for a nighttime airstrike
The IDF said that it requested residents in the northern area of the Gaza Strip to evacuate “in order to mitigate civilian harm.” But according to the Palestinian Red Crescent, Al-Quds Hospital currently houses over 400 patients and approximately 12,000 displaced civilians who have sought refuge there as a safe haven.
Amnesty International has said Israel’s “collective punishment” of Palestinian civilians for Hamas’ attack amounts to a war crime.
Meanwhile, around 200 trucks carrying vital aid destined for Gaza remain stuck in Egypt, despite a frantic diplomatic effort to open the Rafah crossing. Negotiations continued through Thursday as workers filled dangerous road craters from Israeli bombing to allow up to 20 trucks to pass in an initial delivery.
Deputy United Nations spokesperson Farhan Haq said Friday that the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wants sustained delivery operations to Gaza.
Haq said the Secretary-General “wants to make sure that UNRWA, the relief and works agency, has fuel on its side so it can distribute humanitarian aid to the population.”
“It is no use dropping off aid on the other side and then leaving it there because the trucks simply do not have enough fuel on that side to give it to the people who need it,” he added.
Guterres traveled to the Rafah crossing on Friday as part of the UN’s efforts to help aid reach Gaza.
“Behind these walls, we have two million people that are suffering enormously. So, these trucks are not just trucks, they are a lifeline. They are the difference between life and death,” Guterres said at a press conference held on the Egyptian side of the border.
The population of southern Gaza has swelled in recent days after the Israeli military told around 1 million residents to leave northern Gaza ahead of the expected Israeli ground incursion.
Palestinians brace for potential IDF ground operation
Israeli forces are preparing for the “next stages” of their attack, IDF spokesperson Hagari said in a news conference Friday. “As we speak, the crossings are closed and no equipment (aid) is getting into the strip,” he added.
His comments come on the heels of similar sentiments shared by Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant on Thursday. Gallant told troops gathered not far from the Gaza Strip that they will “soon see” the enclave “from the inside.”
He said that potentially transferring so many Palestinians is a national security issue for Egypt as well as for Jordan. “If that is going to happen in Egypt, then who will prevent the Israelis from pushing us here in the West Bank to be forcefully transferred to Jordan?” He added that this is an existential issue for Palestinians.
Protests across the Middle East
Protests have erupted in response to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, enveloping much of the Arab world this week. Thousands of people took to the streets following Islamic Friday prayers.
Protesters marched in Yemen on Friday to condemn Israel’s airstrikes, the official Houthi news agency SABA reported.
The Iran-aligned Houthi movement, which controls most of northwestern Yemen, including the capital Sanaa, organized the demonstration in “mobilization and in support of the Palestinian people and the mujahideen in Gaza,” SABA said.
“The mass crowds denounced the brutal massacres of the Zionist-American enemy, the crimes and genocidal war it is committing against the Palestinian people, and the prevention of the entry of humanitarian and medical aid in full view of the world,” the agency added.
In Beirut, several hundred people gathered to denounce the Israeli operation. Many waved the Palestinian and Lebanese flags, along with the flags of the Iran-backed Hezbollah group and its political ally in Lebanon, Amal. Young protesters burned the American flag, decrying Washington’s support for Israel.
Hundreds of Iraqis, mostly supporters of Iran-backed militias, staged a sit-in Friday at Iraq’s main border crossing with Jordan. Others protested in Baghdad, not far from the fortified Green Zone that houses the United States embassy.
Thousands of protesters shouting anti-Israel slogans gathered in Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt and Tunisia as well, as regional leaders grow frustrated with the rising Palestinian death toll and the US’ apparent unwillingness to restrain Israel’s actions.
In Egypt and Jordan, both US allies who have signed peace treaties with Israel, officials have sounded alarms over what they perceive as a plan to transfer Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank to Egypt and Jordan. While Israel has not announced any such plans, both countries have warned such a move could pull them into war.
This story is developing and being updated.