‘Sliver of hope’ as Hamas releases hostages, but Gaza aid remains stalled

  • Two American hostages held in Gaza have been released. 
  • Trucks carrying relief are still stuck on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing into Gaza
  • Israel has cut off supplies of water, electricity, fuel and food to the long-blockaded territory.

Hamas released two American hostages held in Gaza, offering a “sliver of hope” to desperate families, as Israel pounded the densely-populated territory where millions waited for promised aid deliveries on Saturday.

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 and Natalie 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.

Trucks carrying relief are still stuck on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing into Gaza, though Biden said they could cross 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.

Biden said Friday he believes the attack was motivated partly by Saudi Arabia’s plan to recognise Israel.

Israel’s military campaign has levelled entire city blocks in Gaza, killing 4 137 Palestinians, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Israeli troops are 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 carries many risks, including to the hostages from Israel and around the world held by Hamas.

‘Overwhelming sense of joy’ 

Biden said he had spoken to the released pair 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 and it was “working with all mediators to implement the movement’s decision to close the civilian (hostage) file if appropriate security conditions allow”.

Israel’s military said Friday “the majority” of those abducted are still alive, while traumatised families 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.”

In Gaza, Israeli jets continued a relentless bombing campaign, with the military saying it hit more than 100 Hamas targets overnight.

‘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% 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, and will result in “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 is strongly backed by international allies and Biden on Friday requested $14 billion in emergency military aid for Israel.

He argued the money would secure US interests in the region, where there are fears of 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, and France said it had directly warned Hezbollah against involvement.

Cross-border fire continued overnight though, with one Israeli soldier killed, Israeli radio said, and the military announced it hit Hezbollah targets after rocket and anti-tank missile fire.

Israel on Friday ordered the 25 000 residents of the northern town of Kiryat Shmona to evacuate.

Debris from an intercepted rocket fell on a school playground in the town on Wednesday, resident Lianne Abutbul told AFP.

“It could have killed children, it’s really scary.”

Violence has also flared in the West Bank, where 84 Palestinians have been killed since October 7, according to the Palestinian health ministry.

Protests have erupted over the conflict across the region and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will host a peace summit on Saturday attended by regional and some Western leaders.

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