By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Emily Rose
GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -The Islamist group Hamas released two U.S. hostages, mother and daughter Judith and Natalie Raanan, who were kidnapped in its attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said on Friday.
The women, who were taken from Nahal Oz kibbutz, near the Gaza border, were on their way to a military base in central Israel, a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.
Media reports in the United States said they were from Evanston, an Illinois suburb of Chicago.
They were the first hostages to be freed since Hamas gunmen burst into Israel nearly two weeks ago, killing 1,400 people, mainly civilians, and taking around 200 hostages.
Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for Hamas’s armed wing, said the hostages were released in response to Qatari mediation efforts, “for humanitarian reasons, and to prove to the American people and the world that the claims made by Biden and his fascist administration are false and baseless”.
A source briefed on the negotiations to release hostages being held by Hamas said the release of the two Americans was “a first step and discussions are ongoing for more releases.”
A team from the U.S. Embassy in Israel will shortly see the two Americans who were freed, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
He said there are still 10 Americans who remain unaccounted for after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7.
“We know that some of them are being held hostage by Hamas,” Blinken told a briefing for reporters.
President Joe Biden in a statement thanked Qatar and Israel for their partnership in securing the pair’s release.
A Qatari foreign ministry spokesperson said the release of the hostages took place “after many days of continuous communication” and dialogue on the release of hostages would continue.
The International Committee of the Red Cross says it helped facilitate the hostages’ release by transporting them from Gaza to Israel.
Israel’s Kan public broadcaster reported the two women were dual Israeli-American nationals.
Hamas has previously described captives with “foreign” nationalities as guests who would be released, without saying if this includes Israelis with dual nationality.
An Israeli army statement earlier in the day said a majority of the hostages were alive.
Israel has vowed to wipe out Hamas, which rules Gaza, relentlessly pounding the strip with air strikes, putting the enclave’s 2.3 million people under a total siege and banning shipments of food, fuel and medical supplies.
The secretary-general of the United Nations visited the crossing between the besieged Gaza Strip and Egypt on Friday, and said humanitarian aid must be allowed across as soon as possible.
At least 4,137 Palestinians have been killed, including hundreds of children, and 13,000 wounded in Gaza, the Palestinian health ministry said. The U.N. says more than a million have been made homeless.
U.S. troops have come under increasing attacks in Syria and Iraq since Oct. 7, raising concerns about a possible escalation.
A U.S. official told Reuters that a U.S. Navy warship intercepted four missiles and more than a dozen drones on Thursday near Yemen fired from Iran-aligned Houthis in the direction of Israel, more than the number announced previously.
Israel has amassed tanks and troops near the perimeter of Gaza for an expected ground invasion.
Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said that achieving Israel’s objectives would not be quick or easy.
“We will topple the Hamas organisation. We will destroy its military and governing infrastructure. It’s a phase that will not be easy. It will have a price,” he told a parliamentary committee.
He added that the subsequent phase would be more drawn out, but was aimed at achieving “a completely different security situation” with no threat to Israel from Gaza. “It’s not a day, it’s not a week, and unfortunately it’s not a month,” he said.
The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the main Palestinian Christian denomination, said that overnight Israeli forces had struck the Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza City, where hundreds of Christians and Muslims had sought sanctuary.
It said targeting churches that were used as shelters for people fleeing bombing was “a war crime that cannot be ignored”.
Video from the scene showed a wounded boy being carried from rubble at night.
“They felt they would be safe here. They came from under the bombardment and the destruction, and they said they would be safe here but destruction chased them,” a man cried out.
Gaza’s Hamas-run government media office said 18 Christian Palestinians had been killed, while the health ministry later gave a toll of 16.
The Israeli military said part of the church was damaged in a strike by fighter jets on a nearby Hamas command centre involved in launching rockets and mortars towards Israel, and that it was reviewing the incident.
“The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) can unequivocally state that the church was not the target of the strike,” it said.
‘EVERYTHING I DREAMT OF’ DESTROYED
Israel has already told all civilians to evacuate the northern half of the Gaza Strip, which includes Gaza City. Many people have yet to leave saying they fear losing everything and have nowhere safe to go with southern areas also under attack.
In Zahra, a northern Gaza town, residents said their entire district of some 25 apartment buildings was razed.
They received Israeli warning messages on their mobile phones at breakfast, followed 10 minutes later by a small drone strike. After another 20 minutes, F-16 warplanes brought the buildings down in huge explosions and clouds of dust.
“Everything I ever dreamt of and thought that I have achieved was gone. In that apartment was my dream, my memories with my children, and my wife, was the smell of safety and love,” Ali, a resident of the district, told Reuters by phone.
The United Nations humanitarian affairs office said more than 140,000 homes – nearly a third of all homes in Gaza – have been damaged, with nearly 13,000 completely destroyed.
The south of the enclave has also been regularly hit. Rescue workers were combing through the wreckage of a house in the main southern city, Khan Younis, for survivors. One carried the limp body of a child.
“We don’t want to receive aid, we want the destruction and the killing of children in their sleep to stop. We are tired,” said neighbour Joumana Khreis.
AID STILL HELD UP
International attention has focused on getting aid to Gaza through the one access point not controlled by Israel, the Rafah crossing to Egypt.
Biden, who visited Israel on Wednesday, said he believed trucks carrying aid would get through in the next 24-48 hours.
The White House said Biden and Netanyahu on Friday discussed plans to begin moving humanitarian assistance into Gaza from Egypt.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres toured the checkpoint on Egypt’s side and called for a meaningful number of trucks to enter Gaza every day and checks – which Israel insists on to stop aid reaching Hamas – to be quick and pragmatic.
“We are engaging very actively with the Israelis, with the Egyptians, with the Americans to see if as soon as possible we are able to move the trucks,” he said.
Western leaders have so far mostly offered support to Israel’s campaign against Hamas, although there is mounting unease about the plight of civilians in Gaza.
Many Muslim states, however, have called for an immediate ceasefire, and protests demanding an end to the bombardment were held in cities across the Islamic world on Friday.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan called on Israel to end “its operations amounting to genocide”.
The conflict is spreading to two other fronts.
Clashes at the border between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement have been the deadliest since a full-blown war in 2006, with Israel ordering the evacuation of more than 20,000 residents from the border town of Kiryat Shmona on Friday.
The West Bank, where Palestinians have limited self-rule under Israeli military occupation, has experienced the deadliest clashes since the second intifada uprising ended in 2005.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Doina Chiacu in Washington and the Washington and Jerusalem Bureaus; Writing by Peter Graff, Alex Richardson and Idrees Ali; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Daniel Wallis, Howard Goller and Diane Craft)