© Reuters. Judith Tai Raanan and her daughter Natalie Shoshana Raanan, U.S. citizens who were taken as hostages by Palestinian Hamas militants, walk while holding hands with Brig.-Gen. (Ret.) Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for the Captives and Missing, after they
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Emily Rose
GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to “fight until victory” in Gaza, signaling no pause in his military’s bombardment and expected invasion of the enclave after Hamas released two U.S. hostages.
The Islamist group Hamas which governs Gaza on Friday released Americans Judith Tai Raanan, 59, and her daughter Natalie, 17, who were kidnapped in its attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7.
An image obtained by Reuters after their release showed the two women surrounded by three Israeli soldiers and holding hands with Gal Hirsch, Israel’s coordinator for the captives and missing.
Reached by phone in Bannockburn, Illinois, outside Chicago, Uri Raanan, the teenager’s father, said he spoke with his daughter by phone. “She sounds very, very good, very happy – and she looks good.”
They were the first hostages confirmed by both sides in the conflict to be freed since Hamas gunmen burst into Israel and killed 1,400 people, mainly civilians, and abducted around 200 others.
“Two of our abductees are at home. We are not giving up on the effort to return all abducted and missing people,” Netanyahu said in a statement released late Friday night.
“At the same time, we’ll continue to fight until victory.”
Abu Ubaida, a spokesperson for Hamas’ armed wing, said the hostages were released in part “for humanitarian reasons” in response to Qatari mediation efforts.
Israel has amassed tanks and troops near Gaza for a planned ground invasion. Its bombardment of Gaza has killed at least 4,137 Palestinians, including hundreds of children, while more than a million have been displaced, according to Palestinian officials.
Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said 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,” Gallant 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.
Palestinian media reported heavy Israeli bombardment in Gaza overnight, including a strike on a house in Jabalia in northern Gaza that killed at least 19 people.
Israeli aircraft struck six homes in northern Gaza early on Saturday, killing at least eight Palestinians and injuring 45, Palestinian media reported.
There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military.
The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the main Palestinian Christian denomination, said that Israeli forces had struck the Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza City, where hundreds of Christians and Muslims had sought refuge.
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.
Asked if Israel had so far followed the laws of war in its response, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated on Friday that Israel had the right to defend itself and make sure Iran-backed Hamas was not able to launch attacks again.
“It’s important that operations be conducted in accordance with international law, humanitarian law, the law of war,” he said.
“There will be plenty of time to make assessments about how these operations were conducted but I can just say from the part of the United States, this continues to be important to us.”
The United Nations humanitarian affairs office said more than 140,000 homes – nearly a third of all homes in Gaza – had been damaged, with nearly 13,000 completely destroyed.
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.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres toured the checkpoint on Egypt’s side on Friday 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.
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.
In the occupied West Bank, where violence has flared since Israel began its bombardment of Gaza, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian teenager during clashes near the city of Jericho.