Tue. May 28th, 2024

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip — Hamas on Friday freed an American woman and her teenage daughter it had held hostage in Gaza, Israel said, the first such release from among the roughly 200 people the militant group abducted during its Oct. 7 rampage in Israel.

The two Americans, Judith Raanan and her 17-year-old daughter Natalie, were out of the Gaza Strip and in the hands of the Israeli military, an army spokesman said. Hamas said it released them for humanitarian reasons in an agreement with the Qatari government.

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The release comes amid growing expectations of an expected ground offensive that Israel says is aimed at rooting out Hamas militants who rule the Gaza Strip. Israel said Friday it does not plan to take long-term control over the tiny territory, home to some 2.3 million people.

As the Israeli military punished Gaza with airstrikes, authorities inched closer to bringing aid to desperate families and hospitals. Muslims around the world protested in solidarity with Palestinians.

Judith and Natalie Ranaan had been on a trip from their home in suburban Chicago to Israel to celebrate the Jewish holidays, the family said. They were in the kibbutz of Nahal Oz, near Gaza, on Oct. 7 — Simchat Torah, a festive Jewish holiday – when Hamas and other militants stormed out of the territory into southern Israeli towns, killing hundreds and abducting 203 others.

The family heard nothing from them since the attack and were later told by U.S. and Israeli officials that they were being held in Gaza, Natalie’s brother Ben said.

Relatives of other captives welcomed the release and appealed for the others to be freed.

“We call on world leaders and the international community to exert their full power in order to act for the release of all the hostages and missing,’’ the statement said.

More than 1,400 people in Israel have been killed in the war — mostly civilians slain during the Hamas incursion that shattered Israelis sense of security.

The Health Ministry run by Hamas says more than 4,100 people have been killed in Gaza since the war began. That includes a disputed number of people who died in a hospital explosion earlier this week.

Israel bombed areas in southern Gaza where Palestinians had been told to seek safety while it tries to destroy Hamas two weeks ago. Fighting between Israel and militants in neighboring Lebanon also raged, prompting evacuations of Lebanese and Israeli border towns as fears of a widening conflict grew.

Speaking to lawmakers about Israel’s long-term plans for Gaza, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant laid out a three-stage plan that seemed to suggest that Israel did not intend to reoccupy the territory it left in 2005.

First, Israeli airstrikes and “maneuvering” — a presumed reference to a ground attack — would aim to root out Hamas. Next will come a lower intensity fight to defeat remaining pockets of resistance. And, finally, a new “security regime” will be created in Gaza along with “the removal of Israel’s responsibility for life in the Gaza Strip,” Gallant said.

Gallant did not say who Israel expected to run Gaza if Hamas is toppled or what the new security regime would entail.

Israel occupied Gaza from 1967 until 2005, when it pulled up settlements and withdrew soldiers. Two years later, Hamas took over. Some Israelis blame the withdrawal from Gaza for the sporadic violence that has persisted since then.

The humanitarian crisis worsened for Gaza’s 2.3 million civilians, as workers along its border with Egypt repaired the border crossing in a first step to bring aid to Palestinians running out of fuel, food, water and medicine.

Over a million people have been displaced in Gaza. Many heeded Israel’s orders to evacuate the northern part of the sealed-off enclave on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called areas in southern Gaza “safe zones” earlier this week, Israeli military spokesman Nir Dinar said Friday: “There are no safe zones.”

U.N. officials said that with the bombings across all of Gaza, some Palestinians who had fled the north appeared to be going back.

“The strikes, coupled with extremely difficult living conditions in the south, appear to have pushed some to return to the north, despite the continuing heavy bombing there,” Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the U.N. human rights office, said.

Gaza’s overwhelmed hospitals were rationing their dwindling resources, as authorities worked out logistics for a desperately needed aid delivery from Egypt.

Generators in Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest, were operating at the lowest setting to conserve fuel while providing power to vital departments such as intensive care, hospital director Mohammed Abu Selmia said. Others worked in darkness.

“I don’t know how long (the fuel) will last. Every day we evaluate the situation,” he said.

The lack of medical supplies and water are making it difficult to treat the mass of victims from the Israeli strikes, he said.

The deal to get aid into Gaza through the territory’s only entry point not controlled by Israel remained fragile. Israel said the supplies could only go to civilians and that it would “thwart” any diversions by Hamas. It was unclear if fuel for the hospital generators would be allowed to enter.

The Palestine Red Crescent Society said it had received a threat from the Israeli military to bomb Al-Quds Hospital and has demanded the hospital’s immediate evacuation. The Gaza City hospital has more than 400 patients and thousands who of displaced civilians who sought refuge on its grounds, it said.

Work continued Friday to repair the road at the Rafah border between Egypt and Gaza that had been damaged in airstrikes. Trucks unloaded gravel, and bulldozers and other equipment was used to fill in large craters.

A U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a rapidly changing situation said aid had been delayed because of ongoing road repairs, and that it was expected to move across the border Saturday. More than 200 trucks and some 3,000 tons of aid were positioned near the crossing.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited the crossing Friday and appealed for the quick movement of aid into Gaza, calling it “the difference between life and death.”

Israel has evacuated its own communities near Gaza and Lebanon, putting residents up in hotels elsewhere in the country. The Defense Ministry announced evacuation plans Friday for Kiryat Shmona, a town of more than 20,000 residents near the Lebanese border. Three Israelis including a 5-year-old girl were wounded in a rocket attack there Thursday, according to Israeli health services.

Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, which has a massive arsenal of long-range rockets, has traded fire with Israel along the borderon a near-daily basis and hinted it might join the war if Israel seeks to annihilate Hamas. Iran supports both armed groups.

The violence in Gaza has also sparked protests across the region, including in Arab countries allied with the U.S.

Palestinians in Gaza reported heavy airstrikes in Khan Younis, a town in the territory’s south, and ambulances carrying men, women and children streamed into the local Nasser Hospital.

Late Thursday, an Israeli airstrike hit a Greek Orthodox church in Gaza City housing displaced Palestinians. The military said it had targeted a Hamas command center nearby, causing damage to a church wall. Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry said 16 Palestinian Christians were killed.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchy of Jerusalem condemned the attack and said it would “not abandon its religious and humanitarian duty” to provide assistance.

Palestinian militants have launched unrelenting rocket attacks into Israel — more than 6,900 since Oct. 7, according to Israel — and tensions have flared in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Israel has targeted militants in raids across the occupied territory. On Friday, two Palestinian teenagers were killed in clashes in the West Bank, where more than 80 Palestinians have been killed over the past two weeks.

An unclassified U.S. intelligence assessment estimated casualties in an explosion at a Gaza City hospital this week on the “low end” of 100 to 300 deaths. It said intelligence officials were still assessing the evidence and the casualty estimate may evolve.

The report echoed earlier assessments by U.S. officials that the massive blast at the al-Ahli hospital was not caused by an Israeli airstrike, as Hamas has reported. Israel has presented video, audio and other evidence it says proves the blast was caused by a rocket misfired by Palestinian militants.

The AP has not independently verified any of the claims or evidence released by the parties.

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