Two American women are first captives released by Hamas

Al-Zahra city near Khan Younis, southern Gaza, after it was destroyed in Israeli airstrikes, 20 October.

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On Friday, Hamas released two American women who were taken from Nahal Oz kibbutz on 7 October and held captive in Gaza since then. They are the first of the more than 200 captives being held in Gaza to be released.

The women were identified as mother and daughter Judith and Natalie Raanan from the Chicago suburb of Evanston.

The pair were transferred to the Red Cross and then brought to Israel, though “the exact mechanism of the transfer was not immediately clear,” The Times of Israel reported.

The Red Cross has previously said that it maintains daily contacts with Hamas and is working discreetly to facilitate communication between the captives and their family members “and to facilitate any eventual release.”

US President Joe Biden confirmed the women’s release and said he was “overjoyed” by the development.

“Israeli officials cited by several Hebrew media outlets stressed that the Hamas decision was made unilaterally and that Jerusalem didn’t offer anything in exchange,” The Times of Israel added.

In a rare statement issued in English as well as in Arabic, Abu Obeida, the spokesperson for the Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, said that the group had released the two “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.”

The Israeli army stated earlier in the day that “a majority of the hostages were alive,” CNN reported. The Qassam Brigades has previously announced that nearly two dozen captives were killed in Israel’s nonstop bombardment of Gaza.

Mother and daughter Judith and Natalie Raanan after their release following nearly two weeks of captivity in Gaza, 20 October.

Ziv Koren Polaris

Hamas figures said earlier this week that Qassam would release the foreign nationals that they are holding, except for those who serve in the Israeli military. The Islamist resistance group stated on Friday that it is working with all intermediaries “to close the civilian file if appropriate security conditions are available.”

The group also saluted the masses who came out to the streets in protest “to send a clear message” in support of the Palestinian national liberation cause.

Bloomberg, citing sources familiar with the efforts, reported on Friday that “US and European governments have been putting pressure on Israel to delay its ground invasion of Gaza to buy time for secret talks underway via Qatar to win the release of hostages held by Hamas.”

The publication, citing the Israeli military, said that “more than 20 of the hostages are teenagers and young children, while 10-20 of them are over 60 years old.”

The captives “include dozens of citizens of the US, UK, France and other countries.”

Hamas leaders have said that they would the use captives to secure the release of all Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons – currently numbering around 5,200 – as well as Palestinians serving lengthy prison sentences in the US for terror financing convictions related to their charitable work in Gaza.

The organization likely concluded that it has enough Israeli military prisoners of war, including senior officers, that any potential benefit to holding on to non-military foreign nationals is far outweighed by the public relations cost, as well as the difficulty of keeping them safe and protected.

Its statements about the release of the two American women on Friday indicate that despite the Israeli and American demonization campaign attempting to liken it to ISIS, and divorce it from the national liberation struggle, Hamas is still highly attentive to global public opinion.

Israeli military and political leaders meanwhile have said that they would prioritize destroying Hamas over securing the release of the captives.

Nir Barkat, Israel’s economy minister and a member of the country’s security cabinet, said that the Israeli military has a “green light” to launch a ground invasion into Gaza. He told ABC News that “hostages and civilian casualties will be secondary to destroying Hamas, ‘even if it takes a year.’”

Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defense minister, told Israeli troops assembled near Gaza on Thursday that the order for a ground invasion would come soon.

Gallant said on Friday that Israel’s objectives in Gaza include eliminating Hamas “by destroying its military and governmental capabilities, and completely removing any responsibility Israel has over Gaza by creating a new ‘security regime’ in the Strip,” The Times of Israel reported.

Palestinians mourn family members killed in Israeli bombardment, al-Aqsa hospital in Deir al-Balah, 20 October.

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Gallant added that the ongoing intensive airstrikes on Gaza are the first phase of Israel’s military campaign, which will be followed by a ground “maneuver with the purpose of destroying operatives and damaging infrastructure in order to defeat and destroy Hamas.”

The use of the term “maneuver” may be a subtle signal that this will be something less than a full-scale invasion, or at least that Israel does not intend to remain inside Gaza permanently.

Last week, Biden, who Israel relies on for military and political support, publicly warned Tel Aviv that it would be a “big mistake” to permanently reoccupy Gaza.

The second phase, according to Gallant, “will be continued fighting but at a lower intensity as troops work to “eliminate pockets of resistance,’” according to The Times of Israel.

The third phase, Gallant said, involves creating “a new security reality for the citizens of Israel and the residents” of the Gaza-area settlements.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s press office stated on Friday that Israel’s goal in Gaza is “the elimination of Hamas. All talk of decisions to hand over the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority or any other party is a lie.”

Speaking on The Electronic Intifada Podcast’s livestream on Friday, researcher and analyst Jon Elmer said that it would be difficult for Israel to achieve its stated goals.

Israel used to maintain civilian settlements and military bases inside Gaza. But it abandoned them in 2005 as it was unable to protect them against increasingly sophisticated resistance attacks, including those mounted against Israeli forces from underground.

According to Elmer, Hamas’ network of what could be up to 500 miles of tunnels deep underground in Gaza will be virtually impossible for Israel to reach, and will provide the resistance with the ability to move about and emerge in ways Israel will be unable to predict or control.

However, Israel is sure to cause further mass death and destruction in Gaza in any ground invasion.

Major developments

Rafah crossing

During a Friday press conference at the Egyptian side of Rafah crossing, Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, said that the trucks “loaded with water, with fuel, with medicines, with food” waiting to enter Gaza “are not just trucks. They are a lifeline.”

For nearly two weeks, Israel has imposed a total siege on Gaza, preventing the transfer of food, fuel, water, electricity and medical supplies to the territory.

He said that the UN was “actively engaging” with Egypt, Israel and the US to clarify the conditions and restrictions on the entry of urgently needed humanitarian assistance to Gaza. Guterres said that “a humanitarian ceasefire is a precondition for humanitarian delivery.”

Guterres pointedly failed to call for an immediate ceasefire or to demand that Israel immediately reconnect Gaza’s water supply and end its blockade through the crossings it controls.

As Human Rights Watch has noted, Israel, as the occupying power, is required by the Fourth Geneva Convention to ensure that Gaza’s population receives these life essentials. Deliberately withholding them is a war crime.

Reuters said that Guterres was “swarmed by Egyptian protesters chanting pro-Palestinian slogans as he spoke.”

The Palestine Red Crescent Society said that its “teams are ready and waiting” to receive and distribute aid on the Gaza side of Rafah crossing.

Jan Egeland, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, was highly critical of the agreement to transfer humanitarian aid to Gaza via Egypt reached during US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel.

“The diplomats are way behind in responding to an exploding emergency,” Egeland told The Washington Post on Thursday. “You now need a ceasefire and you need massive access across several crossing points, even to be close to responding to the most acute needs as the entire population is now destitute.”

Egeland added that “It is outrageous to hold back emergency relief for children, women and families because they fear aid diversion. Most of the stuff that goes in, the fighting men are well stocked on, they do not need bottled water or baby powder.”

Washington opposes a humanitarian pause to armed hostilities because, it says, it will get in the way of diplomacy. The US is however not pursuing any diplomatic effort aimed at resolving the underlying causes of this latest and unprecedentedly violent conflagration.

Chris Gunness, the former head of the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza, accused the US of giving Israel a “grace period” to achieve its war aims and “carry on killing civilians.” He said that the agreement secured by Biden for aid to enter via Egypt was “the use of international aid as a political tool, it’s condemnable.”

  • China’s Middle East envoy “pinned the cause of the Israel-Gaza crisis on the lack of guarantees for Palestinian rights as he met with his Russian counterpart in Qatar, a go-between in the conflict,” Reuters reported on Friday. China is in alignment with Russia regarding the crisis in Gaza and the two states’ representatives arrived in Qatar on Thursday in an effort to de-escalate.

  • Israel announced on Friday plans to evacuate more than 20,000 people from Kiryat Shmona, a town near the border with Lebanon, after heavy exchanges of fire across the border the previous day. The Israel Democracy Institute estimates that 300,000 Israelis have been internally displaced since 7 October, with 30,000 displaced from the north due to rocket fire from Lebanon and Syria, and the rest from areas near the Gaza boundary.

  • A mutiny is reportedly brewing within the US State Department, with officials telling HuffPost that Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his most senior advisors are ignoring the concerns of “their own experts’ advice as they focus on supporting Israel’s expanding operation in Gaza.” Officials said diplomats were preparing a “dissent cable” warning that the US was making grave mistakes. It was reported last week that a State Department directive discouraged diplomats from using language that would emphasize restoring calm.

  • More than 850 European Union staff have sent a letter to Ursula von der Leyen, the unelected head of the European Commission, protesting her unconditional support for Israel. They write of their concern over “the seeming indifference demonstrated over the past few days by our institution toward the ongoing massacre of civilians in the Gaza Strip, in disregard for human rights and international humanitarian law.”

Amnesty calls for arms embargo

Amnesty International said on Friday that it “has documented unlawful Israeli attacks, including indiscriminate attacks, which caused mass civilian casualties and must be investigated as war crimes.” Amnesty noted that Israel’s strikes “in some cases wiped out entire families.”

Agnès Callamard, the head of Amnesty International, said that “Israel’s allies must immediately impose a comprehensive arms embargo given that serious violations under international law are being committed.”

She called on the International Criminal Court to urgently expedite “its ongoing investigation into evidence of war crimes and other crimes under international law by all parties. Without justice and the dismantlement of Israel’s system of apartheid against Palestinians, there can be no end to the horrifying civilian suffering we are witnessing.”

Amnesty called for the end of Israel’s total siege on Gaza and the lifting of its longstanding blockade on the territory and for Israel to rescind its “evacuation order” in the north half of the Gaza Strip, “which may amount to forced displacement of the population.”

Situation on the ground in Gaza

Israel threatens Gaza City hospital

The Palestine Red Crescent Society urgently appealed for international intervention to avert “another catastrophe like al-Ahli hospital” after it said the Israeli military ordered the evacuation of al-Quds hospital in Gaza City, where there are currently more than 400 patients and some 12,000 displaced persons sheltering.

Following the threats against al-Quds hospital, the head of the World Health Organization stressed on Friday that “it is impossible for these overcrowded hospitals to safely evacuate patients … they must be protected.”

There is no way to safely move thousands of patients, some relying on life support equipment. There is little fuel and insufficient ambulances or staff to move them.

There are no safe evacuation routes and nowhere to go. All of Gaza’s hospitals – if they are still functioning at all – are working far above capacity, with fuel reserves for generators running out, dwindling supplies and exhausted and traumatized medical workers.

Dr. Tarek Loubani, an emergency doctor in Canada who has frequently worked at Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital and maintains contact with colleagues there, told The Electronic Intifada Podcast’s livestream on Friday that doctors in Gaza can now only give the most basic care.

Amid an unending deluge of serious injuries, doctors are forced to make decisions about which patients may receive increasingly scarce healthcare resources, knowing that those decisions mean many patients who with proper care could have been saved, will likely die.

The UN said on Thursday that the World Health Organization had documented “59 attacks on health care affecting 26 health care facilities (including 17 hospitals damaged) and 23 ambulances.” Four hospitals in the northern half of Gaza have been evacuated and “are no longer operational.”

Michael Ryan, a program director with the World Health Organization, said on Thursday that “damage to healthcare facilities, blasts at health care facilities, whether by accident or intent are a result of war and are considered to be acts that are prohibited under international law.”

Dr. Mads Gilbert said on Friday that he was informed by a colleague at al-Quds hospital that “we have made a decision. We will not leave our patients behind,” meaning they won’t evacuate.

Gaza casualties

Gaza’s health ministry said on Friday that the death toll in the territory since 7 October stands at 4,137 people, while more than 13,000 have been injured. The ministry said early evening Friday local time that during the past 24 hours, the Israeli military “committed 37 massacres against families in the Gaza Strip,” killing more than 350 people and injuring nearly 670.

Defense for Children International-Palestine, citing the health ministry, said on Friday that more than 1,660 Palestinian children have been confirmed killed since 7 October, and that 4,000 were injured “and hundreds are still missing under the rubble.”

The UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs said that on 15 October, around “100 unidentified bodies were buried in a mass grave in Rafah due to the lack of refrigerated space to store them until recognition procedures are conducted.” The UN added that “this measure followed environmental and human indignity concerns related to the decomposition of the bodies.”

As of Wednesday, Gaza’s health ministry reported that “79 families had lost ten or more of their members; 85 families had lost 6 to 9 members, and 320 families had lost two to five of their members.”

Orthodox church damaged by Israeli bombing

The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem condemned an Israeli airstrike that hit the Saint Porphyrius Orthodox Church compound in Gaza City on Thursday where displaced people had been taking shelter and called it “a war crime that cannot be ignored.” Gaza’s health ministry said on Friday that 16 people were killed at the church.

The Israeli military denied that the church was the target of the strike and said that it was targeting a nearby Hamas command center – a claim that it has made in the past to justify the destruction of civilian objects.

Video showed a funeral mass being performed at the church, located around 400 feet away from the al-Ahli hospital where hundreds were killed on Tuesday, with the bodies of victims wrapped in white sheets and plastic:

Israel destroys al-Zahra buildings

Israeli bombs razed 25 apartment buildings in al-Zahra, a town in southern Gaza, on Friday. Residents told Reuters that 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.”

The UN office of humanitarian affairs says that 30 percent of Gaza’s housing stock has been destroyed, rendered uninhabitable or slightly to moderately damaged during the Israeli military offensive. More than one million people are internally displaced within Gaza, according to the UN, with more than half a million people staying at nearly 150 UN shelters “in increasingly dire conditions.”

Bakeries damaged in Israeli strikes

Two bakeries in Gaza were damaged in Israeli airstrikes on Thursday, further compounding access to fresh bread, the UN said.

Twenty people were reported killed in the airstrike in the area of a bakery in Gaza City and five were killed in the airstrike near a bakery in Nuseirat refugee camp.

Another bakery – one of six contracted by the World Food Program – was damaged on 18 October and “is no longer functioning.”

“Most other bakeries are unable to operate due to the shortage of essential ingredients, particularly wheat flour, which is expected to be depleted in less than a week,” the UN said. “Only one of the five mills in Gaza is functioning.”

UNRWA staff killed

UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, said that eight people were killed, including three of its staff, in a strike on one of its schools in al-Maghazi refugee camp on Wednesday. Four thousand displaced people were sheltering at the school when it was hit.

The agency has confirmed that 16 of its staff in Gaza have been killed since 7 October, though the actual number is “likely to be much higher.” In addition to the eight killed in al-Maghazi, 100 displaced people sheltering at its schools have been injured.

UNRWA said that its “shelters are overcrowded and have very limited supplies of food, drinking water, hygiene and cleaning supplies and potable water. The dire conditions, compounded by trauma due to the war, have started to fuel tensions among” the people sheltering at its facilities.

Al-Ahli hospital massacre

A preliminary analysis by Forensic Architecture, Al-Haq and Earshot “casts significant doubt” on Israel’s claims that the source of the deadly explosion that killed hundreds of civilians at Gaza City’s al-Ahli hospital on Tuesday “was a Palestinian-fired rocket traveling west to east.”

The groups said that “a conclusive investigation into this attack requires full access to the site and munition fragments, as well as witness interviews. We continue our work on this case, and reaffirm our solidarity with Palestinian people under attack, including our friends and colleagues.”
US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Thursday that the Biden administration does not believe an international investigation into the deadly hospital strike “is appropriate at this time.” Miller claimed that the Israeli government “has released a great deal of evidence to support their contention that this was a misfired rocket attack” and said that the US was conducting its own assessment.

Miller said that “we have made very clear that we expect Israel to conduct its operations in compliance with international law … and to the maximum extent possible to protect civilians from harm.”

However, Israel has released no direct evidence supporting its claim that the missile that hit the al-Ahli hospital was a misfired Palestinian rocket.

Moreover, an audio recording Israel released, claiming it to be an intercepted call between two Hamas operatives acknowledging the al-Ahli bombing as caused by a Palestinian rocket, is likely fake.

A digital analysis of the audio done as part of the preliminary investigation by Forensic Architecture, Al-Haq and Earshot found that “that this recording was manipulated and cannot be used as a credible source of evidence.”

Gaza’s lost lives

Reports on the latest victims in Gaza and tributes to them continued to be posted on social media:


Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.