Gaza war: With Qatar mediation, Hamas frees two US hostages as Israel readies invasion

Gaza war: With Qatar mediation, Hamas frees two US hostages as Israel readies invasion
Amidst an escalating conflict in the region, Hamas has released two American hostages, part of a group of over 200 captives, following mediation by Qatar and Egypt. The situation in Gaza remains dire as its residents await essential humanitarian aid.
5 min read
Protests erupted worldwide after Israel's brutal retaliation against Hamas's attacks [Getty Images]

Israel confirmed on Friday that Hamas had released two Americans among more than 200 hostages abducted earlier this month as it kept up its unrelenting bombing of Gaza in response to the group's unprecedented attacks across the border.

International Committee of the Red Cross president Mirjana Spoljaric said the Americans' release, which came after mediation by Qatar and Egypt, provided a "sliver of hope" for the families of other hostages held in Gaza, who include nationals of two dozen countries around the world.

It came as residents of Gaza desperately awaited aid, with US President Joe Biden saying he expected the first trucks to enter Gaza from Egypt in the "next 24 to 48 hours". United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had earlier visited the border to press for the delivery of "life and death" relief to its 2.4 million people.

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas after the Palestinian militant group launched a shock raid from the Gaza Strip on October 7, killing at least 1,400 people, mostly civilians shot, mutilated or burned to death, according to Israeli officials.

In response to the Hamas attack, Israeli bombers have levelled entire city blocks in Gaza in preparation for a ground invasion they say is coming soon. The Hamas-run health ministry said 4,137 Palestinians, mostly civilians and nearly half of whom children, have died in the onslaught.

Israel identified the two Americans freed on Friday as mother and daughter Judith Tai Raanan and Natalie Shoshana Raanan, who were abducted from Nahal Oz kibbutz near the border almost two weeks ago.

Following their release, Biden said they had "endured a terrible ordeal these past 14 days, and I am overjoyed that they will soon be reunited with their family".

Hamas said it had released the pair "in response to Qatari efforts". The Gulf state, which hosts Hamas's political bureau, has been attempting to mediate in the crisis.

Qatari foreign ministry spokesman Majid al-Ansari said: "We hope these efforts will lead to the release of all civilian hostages from every nationality."

Hamas said they were "working with all mediators to implement the movement's decision to close the civilian (hostage) file if appropriate security conditions allow".

The Israeli military said earlier Friday that most of those abducted to Gaza were still alive and more than 20 of them were minors.

Rafah crossing with Egypt remains closed to aid

Some 175 lorries stuffed with vital medicines, food, and water stretched into the distance at the Rafah crossing with Egypt, which is scrambling to repair the route into besieged Gaza -- the only one not controlled by Israel.

Overseeing operations personally, the UN chief told reporters: "These trucks are not just trucks, they are a lifeline, they are the difference between life and death for so many people in Gaza."

Israeli jets pounded more than 100 Hamas targets in Gaza overnight, the army said, with AFP reporters hearing loud explosions and witnessing plumes of smoke billowing from the northern Gaza Strip.

Embracing front-line soldiers and clad in body armour, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged them to "fight like lions" and "win with full force".

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant told some of the tens of thousands of personnel preparing the ground invasion that "the order will come soon".

Aid agencies in Gaza said they had received warnings from Israel to evacuate a major hospital and five schools ahead of a potential strike.

The Al-Quds Hospital is in northern Gaza, which has borne the brunt of Israeli air raids.

The US president said Friday he expected the first aid for Gaza to pass through the Rafah crossing from Egypt within the next two days, under a deal he clinched to allow in 20 trucks of supplies for civilians.

But World Health Organization emergencies director Michael Ryan said Biden's 20-truck deal was "a drop in the ocean of need" and that 2,000 trucks were required.

The UN says more than one million of Gaza's 2.4 million people are displaced, with the humanitarian situation "beyond catastrophic" and deteriorating daily.

Refugees from northern Gaza told harrowing tales of bombs, profiteering and extreme temperatures as whole families trekked on foot to flee the violence.

Mother of seven Fadwa Al-Najjar walked for 10 hours with her family from northern Gaza to reach a UN camp in the southern city of Khan Yunis, saying she saw cars hit by a strike just in front of them.

"We saw bodies and limbs torn off and we just started praying, thinking we were going to die," she said.

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US military aid to Israel

On the other side of the conflict, the full horror of what Israel suffered on October 7 and following days was still emerging, as traumatised residents recounted their stories.

Shachar Butler, a security chief at the Nir Oz kibbutz, where Hamas militants killed or kidnapped a quarter of the 400 residents, recalls more than a dozen gunmen spraying bullets indiscriminately and lobbing grenades at homes.

"It's unimaginable," the 40-year-old told AFP as part of a trip organised by the Israeli military.

"Anytime someone tried to touch my window, I shot him," he said. "The people who came out got kidnapped, killed, executed, slaughtered."

Butler estimated as many as 200 militants attacked the kibbutz, entering from three sides before going house-to-house. Homes there were still charred with burnt personal belongings strewn everywhere.

Israel says around 1,500 Hamas fighters were killed in clashes before its army regained control.

Biden requested a massive $105 billion security package Friday, including $14 billion for Israel, but paralysis in the still speakerless Congress means it will hit an immediate wall.

Fresh from a whirlwind trip to Israel this week, Biden is hoping to staunch the possibility of a wider Middle East war.

The United States has moved two aircraft carriers into the eastern Mediterranean to deter Iran or Lebanon's Hezbollah, both Hamas allies, from getting involved.

After days of clashes with Hezbollah fighters along the Lebanese border, Israeli authorities announced the evacuation of Kiryat Shmona, a nearby town which is home to some 25,000 residents, many of whom have already left.

The conflict has inflamed passions across the region, with protests held in several countries.

Thousands flooded into Egypt's iconic Tahrir Square in support of Gaza. Protests were also held outside the French and US embassies in Tunis.