By NAJIB JOBAIN, SAMYA KULLAB and JOSEPH KRAUSS (Associated Press)
KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) — Hamas on Friday freed an American woman and her teenage daughter it had held hostage in Gaza, Israel said, the first such release from among the roughly 200 people the terrorist group abducted during its Oct. 7 rampage.
The two Americans, Judith Raanan and her 17-year-old daughter Natalie, were out of the Gaza Strip and in the hands of the Israeli military, an army spokesman said. Hamas said it released them for humanitarian reasons in an agreement with the Qatari government. Hamas has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada and the European Union.
The release comes amid growing expectations of an expected ground offensive that Israel says is aimed at rooting out Hamas terrorists who rule the Gaza Strip. Israel said Friday it does not plan to take long-term control over the tiny territory, home to some 2.3 million people.
As the Israeli military punished Gaza with airstrikes, authorities inched closer to bringing aid from Egypt to desperate families and hospitals. Fighting between Israel and militants in neighboring Lebanon also raged, prompting evacuations of Lebanese and Israeli border towns as fears of a widening conflict grew.
Judith and Natalie Ranaan had been on a trip from their home in suburban Chicago to Israel to celebrate the Jewish holidays, the family said. They were in the kibbutz of Nahal Oz, near Gaza, on Oct. 7 – Simchat Torah, a festive Jewish holiday – when Hamas and other terrorists stormed out of the territory into southern Israeli towns, killing hundreds and abducting 203 others.
The family had heard nothing from them since the attack and were later told by U.S. and Israeli officials that they were being held in Gaza, Natalie’s brother Ben said.
“I am overjoyed that they will soon be reunited with their family, who has been wracked with fear,” U.S. President Joe Biden said. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which transported the freed Americans from Gaza to Israel, said their release was “a sliver of hope.”
Relatives of other captives welcomed the release and appealed for the others to be freed.
“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,’’ the statement said.
Qatar said it would continue its dialogue with Israel and Hamas in hopes of winning the release of all hostages “with the ultimate aim of de-escalating the current crisis and restoring peace.”
Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Israel was continuing to work to return hostages and find the missing, and its goals had not changed. “We are continuing the war against Hamas and ready for the next stage of the war,” he said.
A potential Israeli ground assault is likely to lead to a dramatic escalation in casualties on both sides in urban fighting. More than 1,400 people in Israel have been killed in the war — mostly civilians slain during the Hamas incursion. More than 4,100 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Health Ministry run by Hamas. That includes a disputed number of people who died in a hospital explosion earlier this week.
Speaking to lawmakers about Israel’s long-term plans for Gaza, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant laid out a three-stage plan that seemed to suggest that Israel did not intend to reoccupy the territory it left in 2005.
First, Israeli airstrikes and “maneuvering” — a presumed reference to a ground attack — would aim to root out Hamas. Next will come a lower intensity fight to defeat remaining pockets of resistance. And, finally, a new “security regime” will be created in Gaza along with “the removal of Israel’s responsibility for life in the Gaza Strip,” Gallant said.
Gallant did not say who Israel expected to run Gaza if Hamas is toppled or what the new security regime would entail.
Israel occupied Gaza from 1967 until 2005, when it pulled up settlements and withdrew soldiers. Two years later, Hamas took over. Some Israelis blame the withdrawal from Gaza for the sporadic violence that has persisted since then.
The humanitarian crisis has worsened for Gaza’s civilians every day since Israel halted entry of supplies two weeks ago, depleting fuel, food, water and medicine. Two days after Israel announced a deal to allow Egypt to send in aid, the border remained closed Friday as Egypt repaired the Rafah crossing, damaged by Israeli strikes.
Over a million people have been displaced in Gaza. Many heeded Israel’s orders to evacuate the northern part of the sealed-off enclave on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. But Israel has continued to bomb areas in southern Gaza where Palestinians had been told to seek safety. Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called areas in the south “safe zones” earlier this week, Israeli military spokesman Nir Dinar said Friday: “There are no safe zones.”
Some Palestinians who had fled from the north appeared to be going back because of bombings and difficult living conditions in the south, said Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the U.N. human rights office.
Gaza’s overwhelmed hospitals were rationing their dwindling resources .
Generators in Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest, were operating at the lowest setting to conserve fuel while providing power to vital departments such as intensive care, hospital director Mohammed Abu Selmia said. Others worked in darkness.
“I don’t know how long (the fuel) will last. Every day we evaluate the situation,” he said.
The lack of medical supplies and water are making it difficult to treat the mass of victims from the Israeli strikes, he said.
The Palestine Red Crescent Society said it had received a threat from the Israeli military to bomb Al-Quds Hospital and has demanded the hospital’s immediate evacuation. The Gaza City hospital has more than 400 patients and thousands who of displaced civilians who sought refuge on its grounds, it said.
Work continued Friday to repair the road at the Rafah crossing with Egypt, Gaza’s only entry point not controlled by Israel. Trucks unloaded gravel, and bulldozers and other equipment was used to fill in large craters.
A U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a rapidly changing situation said aid had been delayed because of ongoing road repairs, and that it was expected to move across the border Saturday. More than 200 trucks and some 3,000 tons of aid were positioned near the crossing.
Israel said the supplies could only go to civilians and that it would “thwart” any diversions by Hamas. It was unclear if fuel for the hospital generators would be allowed to enter.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited the crossing Friday and appealed for the quick movement of aid into Gaza, calling it “the difference between life and death.”
Israel has evacuated its own communities near Gaza and Lebanon, putting residents up in hotels elsewhere in the country. The Defense Ministry announced evacuation plans Friday for Kiryat Shmona, a town of more than 20,000 residents near the Lebanese border. Three Israelis including a 5-year-old girl were wounded in a rocket attack there Thursday, according to Israeli health services.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, which has a massive arsenal of long-range rockets, has traded fire with Israel along the border on a near-daily basis and hinted it might join the war if Israel seeks to annihilate Hamas. Iran supports both armed groups.
The violence in Gaza has also sparked protests across the region, including in Arab countries allied with the U.S.
Palestinians in Gaza reported heavy airstrikes in Khan Younis, a town in the territory’s south, and ambulances carrying men, women and children streamed into the local Nasser Hospital.
Late Thursday, an Israeli airstrike hit a Greek Orthodox church in Gaza City housing displaced Palestinians. Gaza’s Health Ministry said 16 Palestinian Christians were killed. The military said it had targeted a Hamas command center nearby, causing damage to a church wall.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchy of Jerusalem condemned the attack and said it would “not abandon its religious and humanitarian duty” to provide assistance.
Palestinian terrorists have launched unrelenting rocket attacks into Israel — more than 6,900 since Oct. 7, according to Israel — and tensions have flared in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Israel has targeted terrorists in raids across the occupied territory. On Friday, two Palestinian teenagers were killed in clashes in the West Bank, where more than 80 Palestinians have been killed over the past two weeks.
Krauss reported from Jerusalem and Kullab from Baghdad. Associated Press journalists Amy Teibel, Ravi Nessman, Julia Frankel and Isabel Debre in Jerusalem; Samy Magdy and Jack Jeffery in Cairo; Matthew Lee in Washington, and Ashraf Sweilam in el-Arish, Egypt, contributed to this report.