After two American hostages are freed, hope and anguish remain in Israel

JERUSALEM — Sasha Ariel was watching the news Friday night — as she has done almost constantly since her sister Karina was kidnapped by Hamas militants on Oct. 7 — when she finally heard the alert she’d been praying for: Hamas was releasing two hostages.

For a few moments she dared to hope that it was Karina about to walk free from the nightmare that has engulfed her family, her country and the Gaza Strip, where hostages and civilians alike are enduring a withering bombardment.

Then she learned that the two women being released were American citizens (Ariel’s sister has only an Israeli passport), and now she doesn’t know what to think.

“It gave us some hope to hear this news, and it took some hope away,” said Ariel, 24. “We don’t know if anything has changed.”

The day after being briefly electrified by Hamas’s surprise release — after the group steadfastly ignored demands from around the world to free at least the children, ill and aged — hostage families agonized Saturday over what the gesture might mean.

Government negotiators, military planners and aid groups were are also trying to understand what Hamas hoped to achieve, and whether the dynamic of the war has shifted, including the calculus by the Israeli military for an expected ground invasion of Gaza.

Since the Hamas rampage killed more than 1,400 Israelis, Israel has maintained a punishing air assault on Gaza targets. Palestinian officials say Israeli strikes have killed at least 4,385 people in Gaza and displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians. The Israel Defense Forces continues to amass huge forces along the border.

Many are skeptical that the release of two captives — out of more than 200 — will make much difference. Michael Milshtein observed and negotiated with Hamas leaders for years as the head of the Israeli military’s Palestinian Intelligence Department. He thinks the group may be bidding to slow or limit Israel’s expected ground assault by hinting at a new openness to negotiations.

Families of Israeli hostages held by Hamas cling to digital clues

Israel and other governments should pursue every avenue, Milshtein said, but he doubted Israel’s public fury would allow for any bargain that would free hostages but left Hamas a chance to survive.

“It was new development; maybe it opens a new opportunity,” said Milshtein, who is now the head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University. “But I don’t think it will change policies or plans. People are determined to eradicate Hamas from the map.”

Hamas said it released the mother and daughter pair — Judith Raanan and her teenage daughter, Natalie Raanan, of Evanston, Ill. — for “humanitarian” reasons at the behest of Qatar, which has been a pipeline for aid and diplomatic support to Gaza for more than a decade. Hamas also said it was attempting to undercut President Biden’s portrayal of the group as a depraved terrorist organization engaged in “pure evil.”

Following the release, a Hamas communiqué said it was open to freeing other “individuals of foreign nationalities … when security circumstances permit.” The statement gave no further details, but appeared to suggest that it was linking possible hostage releases to an easing of Israeli’s military campaign.

“This was a clear PR exercise for Hamas,” said Tahani Mustafa, a Palestinian analyst with the International Crisis Group. Hamas is keen to “to dispel the narrative about it being a dogmatically inclined ISIS-like organization,” she said.

Inside Gaza, desperate civilians didn’t have much time to debate the possible meaning of the hostage release. Almost 1.5 million people have been displaced by Israeli bombing, according to the United Nations. Nearly 2 million have been cut off from food, water, fuel and medicine.

The first 20 trucks of humanitarian supplies entered the enclave from Egypt Saturday. Aid groups said it would require many times that number of deliveries coming every day to head of the growing crisis.

Some Gazans wondered if Saturday’s modest delivery was part of a deal with Hamas to free the two women. If so, few expected the release to do anything to stem the bombardment that has left many sleeping on the roads.

“It might help get aid into Gaza from Rafah, but never a cease-fire or an end of the war,” said Ayman Jameel, 39, who was charging 10 cellphones at pharmacy in Nussairat Camp in southern Gaza. “Hamas has dozens of Israelis and two will not make a change.”

Neither Hamas or Qatar have described any of the terms that may have been agreed to for the women’s release. The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment on what role Israel had in brokering the arrangement.

U.S. officials, speaking anonymously to The Washington Post to discuss delicate negotiations, described the arrangement to release the women as a major breakthrough aided by teams from the State Department and FBI. Freeing the rest of an unknown number of Americans would be even more complicated, they said, particularly if ground fighting begins.

In Israel, the families of all but two of the hostages resumed their vigil on Saturday, and their campaign to pressure the Israeli government to get the rest of them out.

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum, an alliance of families, planned demonstrations Saturday. The group called for Israelis across the country go out to balconies and sidewalks at 8 p.m. and light candles in a show of support. El Al, the national airline, said it would join with special illuminated video screens.

The family group hailed the release of the Raanans, who were in Israel to celebrate the Sukkot holiday with their family. But it called on Israel, Qatar and the world to do more for the rest.

Ariel, whose sister was taken from a military base near Gaza, said she woke up to the same awful waiting Saturday. The only good news was the report of the first aid trucks into Gaza, she said.

“I want humanitarian help for everyone,” she said. “For our hostages but also for the citizens of Gaza. They are not the ones to blame.”

Balousha reported from Nussairat Camp, Gaza. Loveday Morris in Askelon contributed to this report.

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