Hamas has released two US hostages who were abducted during the Palestinian group’s deadly raid on Israel this month.
Israel confirmed they had received mother and daughter Judith and Natalie Raanan from Hamas at the Gaza boundary.
The pair were freed for “humanitarian reasons”, Hamas said.
US President Joe Biden said he was overjoyed at their release and confirmed he had spoken with the Raanans on the phone.
They were the first captives released since the gunmen raided Israel on 7 October, killing 1,400 people and taking around 200 hostages.
Palestinian officials say more than 4,000 people have been killed in Gaza, which has been under Israeli bombardment.
Brig Gen Gal Hirsch, together with members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), received the two hostages from Hamas at the boundary of the Palestinian enclave on Friday evening, said the Israeli prime minister’s office.
The Raanans were taken to a military base in the centre of the country, where family members were waiting, said the PM’s office.
The mother and daughter were staying at Kibbutz Nahal Oz in southern Israel when they were abducted during the Hamas incursion.
The 59-year-old Illinois mother and her 17-year-old daughter, who recently graduated from high school, are both residents of Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.
Natalie’s half-brother, Ben Raanan, told the BBC he felt an “overwhelming sense of gratitude to the large community of people around the world who have put my sister at the forefront of their thoughts, of their prayers, of all religions and all beliefs”.
Natalie’s uncle, Avi Zamir, said the family were “extremely joyful”.
Evanston Rabbi Meir Hecht told the BBC the Jewish community in the suburb was “elated”, adding that his phone had been constantly ringing since they were freed.
“We have so much gratitude to the almighty God for this miracle,” said Rabbi Hecht, adding: “We still have deep pain for all those hostages that are still there.”
At a Friday night vigil in Evanston for the hostages held by Hamas, a close friend of Judith, Yehudis Hecht, said their lives had been “turned into a nightmare” when they heard the two had been taken.
“We are praying that they have quick healing from all that they have endured and we are praying for all Israel and a safe return of all hostages,” she said.
The Raanans were taken hostage while celebrating Natalie’s graduation and the 85th birthday of her grandmother, Tamar Ranaan, who survived the Hamas attack.
Tamar Ranaan and her partner, Yehiel, survived by hiding in the safe room of their home.
Mr Biden thanked the Qatari government for its mediation efforts in the release of the two women on Friday.
US officials have been “working around-the-clock to free American citizens who were taken hostage by Hamas”, he said.
A Hamas spokesman, Abu Ubaida, said the mother and daughter had been released “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”.
CNN reported that the mother had been suffering poor health and was receiving treatment from the Red Cross.
Judith Raanan was born in Israel, worked in the US as an aesthetician and life coach, and often used her Hebrew name, Yehudit, reported the Chicago Tribune.
Illinois Governor JB Pritzker released a statement saying: “I cannot wait to welcome them back home after demonstrating immense strength and bravery in the face of unthinkable terror.”
As of Friday, at least 32 American citizens had been confirmed dead this month in the Israel-Hamas conflict, while 10 remained unaccounted for, according to the US state department.
The US and UK have each said they are working with Qatari officials to help secure the release of their own citizens.
Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement: “We will continue our dialogue with both the Israelis and Hamas, and we hope these efforts will lead to the release of all civilian hostages from every nationality.”
Other countries with nationals being held in Gaza include Argentina, Germany, France, Thailand and Portugal.
Source : BBC