Hamas released two American hostages held in Gaza on Friday, offering a “sliver of hope” to desperate families, as Israel pounded the densely-populated territory where millions are still awaiting promised aid deliveries.
The Islamist group took more than 200 people hostage when it stormed into Israel from the Gaza Strip on October 7, and killed at least 1,400 people, mostly civilians who were shot, mutilated or burnt to death on the first day of the raid, according to Israeli officials.
The fate of the hostages has been shrouded in uncertainty, so the release of mother and daughter Judith Tai Raanan and Natalie Shoshana Raanan offered a rare “sliver of hope”, said Mirjana Spoljaric, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
US President Joe Biden said he was “overjoyed” by the release, which comes days after he visited Israel to express solidarity with the wounded country and press for humanitarian aid into Gaza.
There was little progress on that front however, with trucks carrying relief the United Nations calls a “lifeline” still stuck on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing into Gaza.
There had been hope aid would begin to trickle across Friday, but Biden said he now expected movement to begin in the “next 24 to 48 hours.”
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas, and says around 1,500 of the group’s fighters were killed in clashes before its army regained control of the area under attack on October 7.
Its military campaign has so far levelled entire city blocks in Gaza, killing 4,137 Palestinians, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
Israeli troops have massed on the border with Gaza ahead of an expected ground invasion that officials have pledged will begin “soon.”
But a full-blown land offensive offers a multitude of challenges, including the risk posed to hostages from Israel and around the world held by Hamas.
– ‘Overwhelming sense of joy’ –
The mother-and-daughter pair released Friday were abducted from the Nahal Oz kibbutz near the border almost two weeks ago.
There were no immediate details on their condition, but Biden said he had spoken to them and promised US support “as they recover from this terrible ordeal.”
He thanked Qatar, which hosts Hamas’ political bureau, for its mediation in securing the release, and said he was working “around the clock” to win the return of other Americans being held.
Natalie Raanan’s half-brother Ben told the BBC he felt an “overwhelming sense of joy” at the release after “the most horrible of ordeals.”
Hamas said Egypt and Qatar had negotiated the release “for humanitarian reasons,” adding that it was “working with all mediators to implement the movement’s decision to close the civilian (hostage) file if appropriate security conditions allow”.
There has been little information on those taken hostage, with Israel’s military saying Friday “the majority” were still alive.
Agonised families have demanded more action.
“Absolutely nothing has been done,” Assaf Shem Tov, whose nephew was abducted from a music festival, said Friday.
“We ask humanity to interfere and bring back all those young boys, young girls, mothers, babies. All the people, they should be released immediately.”
On the ground in Gaza, Israeli jets continued a relentless bombing campaign, with the military saying it hit more than 100 Hamas targets overnight.
AFP reporters heard loud explosions and saw plumes of smoke billowing from the northern Gaza Strip, which Israel has demanded Palestinian civilians leave for their own safety.
– ‘Life and death’ aid –
Some 2.4 million Palestinians live in the densely populated enclave, and almost half have been displaced, according to the UN.
Israel has cut off supplies of water, electricity, fuel and food to the long-blockaded territory.
UN chief Antonio Guterres warned Friday that humanitarian relief stuck in Egypt was “the difference between life and death for so many people in Gaza.”
And World Health Organization emergencies director Michael Ryan said Biden’s deal for an initial 20 truck-delivery was “a drop in the ocean of need” and that 2,000 trucks were required.
At least 30 percent of all housing in Gaza has been destroyed or damaged, the UN says, citing local authorities, and thousands have taken refuge in a tent city set up in southern Gaza’s Khan Yunis.
Fadwa al-Najjar said she and her seven children walked for 10 hours to reach the camp, at some points breaking into a run as air strikes descended around them.
“We saw bodies and limbs torn off and we just started praying, thinking we were going to die,” she told AFP.
“I would have preferred not to leave, to have stayed at home and died there,” her daughter Malak added.
Israel’s operation will take not “a day, nor a week, nor a month,” the country’s defence minister Yoav Gallant warned Friday.
After hitting “pockets of resistance”, the defence minister foresaw “the end of Israel’s responsibilities in the Gaza Strip”.
An Israeli foreign ministry source, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said Israel envisaged “handing over the keys” to neighbouring Egypt, which has strongly rejected attempts to place Gaza’s residents under its responsibility.
– Peace summit –
“I’m afraid that the current destruction is part of a clear plan for people to have no place left to live,” said Omar Ashour, a retired general in Gaza.
“This will cause a second Nakba,” he added, referring to the 760,000 Palestinians who were expelled from or fled their homes when Israel was created.
Israel has received strong international backing from allies including the United States, Britain and the European Union.
On Friday, Biden requested $14 billion in emergency military aid for Israel as part of a massive security spending package that will face a tough battle in the paralysed US Congress.
He argued the money would help secure US interests in the region, where there are fears the Israel-Hamas conflict could touch off a wider conflagration.
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.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Friday Paris has also sent messages to Hezbollah warning them against intervening.
Israel on Friday ordered the 25,000 residents of the northern town of Kiryat Shmona to leave over fears after repeated cross-border exchanges of fire.
The conflict has inflamed tensions across the region, with demonstrations across the Middle East and the leaders of Egypt and Jordan condemning Israel’s “collective punishment” of Palestinians.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will host a peace summit on Saturday attended by regional and some Western leaders.