Hamas releases American captives Judith and Natalie Raanan from Gaza

JERUSALEM — Hamas released two American hostages on Friday, U.S. and Israeli officials said, the first of the at least 200 captives the militant group has held since it rampaged through Israeli towns two weeks ago.

The mother and daughter, released to the Red Cross in Gaza, were transferred to an Israeli military team and escorted to an army base in Israel to be reunited with their family members, officials said.

The pair, identified as Judith Raanan and her teenage daughter, Natalie Raanan, of Evanston, Ill., were in Israel to visit family when they were kidnapped from Nahal Oz, a kibbutz not far from the border fence breached by Hamas fighters. The group said it released them at the request of Qatari mediators for “humanitarian reasons.”

Until Friday, Hamas had ignored demands from Israel and pleas from Western governments to free the captives, many of whom are children, ill or elderly. Israel has said it would not allow humanitarian aid to enter Gaza through its territory until the hostages were freed. Human rights groups have said taking civilian hostages is an unambiguous war crime. President Biden has called Hamas’ actions “pure evil.”

Hamas said it was attempting to undercut Biden’s portrayal of the group as a depraved terrorist organization, a characterization the president reiterated less than 24 hours earlier in a speech calling for more support to Israel.

Biden, who asked Congress on Friday to authorize a sweeping aid package for Israel, said U.S. officials and their allies were “working around-the-clock to free American citizens who were taken hostage by Hamas.” He pledged to continue pushing for the release of all still being held.

“Our fellow citizens have endured a terrible ordeal these past 14 days, and I am overjoyed that they will soon be reunited with their family, who has been wracked with fear,” Biden said in a statement.

Conditions on both sides of Gaza’s heavily controlled border continue to deteriorate.

Inside the Palestinian enclave, a humanitarian catastrophe was unfolding: Nearly 2 million people have been cut off from food, water, fuel and medicine as they weather a relentless Israeli bombing campaign. Hospitals faced with dire shortages were on “the brink of collapse,” the United Nations reported.

Outside Gaza, international frustration mounted as an aid convoy remained stalled at the Rafah gate between Egypt and the territory. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres described a maddening scene of trucks piled with desperately needed supplies unable to reach their destination as officials haggled over logistics.

“It is impossible to be here and not to feel a broken heart,” Guterres said during his brief visit.

Biden, who said this week that Israel and Egypt had assured him they would allow the aid trucks to pass, announced Friday that the crossing would open “in the next 24 to 48 hours.”

Elsewhere along the border, the Israeli military was massing troops and armored vehicles in preparation for the anticipated ground invasion of the densely populated territory. The operation would involve heavy urban combat and almost certainly would lead to an escalation in civilian casualties, analysts said.

As Israel prepared for a ground war, and besieged bystanders braced for its likely consequences, Amnesty International said it had found “damning evidence” of Israeli war crimes in Gaza. Amnesty investigators said Israeli attacks have destroyed block after block of residential buildings and critical infrastructure and caused “mass civilian casualties.”

“In their stated intent to use all means to destroy Hamas, Israeli forces have shown a shocking disregard for civilian lives,” said Agnès Callamard, the secretary general of the London-based rights group.

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, spokesman for the Israeli Defense Force, said aircraft were bombing Gaza “at a rate not seen for decades.” Military officials said they were preparing their “next stage” of operations against Hamas.

The prospect of increased violence and the hamstrung aid continued to spur widespread protests in the Middle East and beyond.

From Egypt to Indonesia and in several American cities, demonstrators again took to the streets, shouting down Israel and its allies, especially the United States, and demanding an immediate cease fire.

At a rare government-approved protest in Cairo, crowds chanted cries of solidarity with Palestine.

“I am a mother. I have children. I feel their pain while they watch as their children get killed,” said Haidy Mohsen, 38, a freelance artist in the Egyptian capital.

Israeli strikes have killed 4,137 people in Gaza and wounded more than 13,200, Palestinian officials say. At least 1,400 people in Israel have been killed and more than 4,500 injured since the Oct. 7 attack, Israeli officials say. Hamas, rampaging through villages and kibbutz settlements, took more than 200 people hostage.

The Raanans were in Israel to celebrate a family birthday and the Jewish High Holy Days. Their release sent relief through the Israeli-American community. Natalie, 17, had recently graduated high school.

“I pray for them to come back alive,” Natalie’s aunt, Sigal Zamir, told the Associated Press last week. “They’re innocent and loving, and they didn’t do anything.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a team from the U.S. Embassy was en route to meet the Raanans.

“No family, anywhere, should have to experience this torture,” he told reporters.

Ten Americans remained unaccounted for, Blinken said, and authorities knew that Hamas was holding at least some of them hostage. Diplomats were working feverishly to secure their release, Blinken said. He declined to share further details.

The Raanans’ release spurred more urgent calls for the remaining hostages to be set free. The Hostages and Missing Families forum, a group in Israel, sought to pressure Arab leaders in the region to work to return their loved ones safely.

“Hamas committed war crimes,” the group said in a statement. “Many leaders in Arab states have tremendous influence over its leaders and must act to immediately release all the hostages and missing held in Gaza.”

A spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israeli authorities “will continue to operate with the best of their abilities and efforts in order to locate all of the missing and return all of the abductees home.”

“At the same time,” Netanyahu added in his own statement, “we continue to fight until victory.”

Heba Farouk Mahfouz contributed to this report.

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