Move widely seen in Israel as PR gambit by terror group

Hamas releases two hostages, mother and daughter Judith and Natalie Raanan

Pair from Chicago were visiting Judith’s mother in Kibbutz Nahal Oz when Hamas invaded; on arrival back in Israel, they were taken to military base ahead of reuniting with relatives

Natalie Raanan, 3rd left, Judith Raanan, right, are seen upon arrival in Israel after being released from Hamas captivity as government hostage envoy Gal Hirsch, center, holds their hands, October 20, 2023. (Courtesy)
Natalie Raanan, 3rd left, Judith Raanan, right, are seen upon arrival in Israel after being released from Hamas captivity as government hostage envoy Gal Hirsch, center, holds their hands, October 20, 2023. (Courtesy)

Hamas on Friday night released two hostages — Judith Raanan and her teenage daughter Natalie — who were kidnapped from Kibbutz Nahal Oz during the terror group’s October 7 assault on Israel.

It was the first release out of at least 203 hostages held by Hamas since its infiltration and massacre of Israeli southern communities that started the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

The two, who have dual American-Israeli citizenship, were handed over to the Red Cross, which then handed them over to Israel. The exact mechanism of the transfer was not immediately clear. Hamas cited that the release was made “for humanitarian reasons.”

The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that Gal Hirsch, recently appointed as coordinator of hostages and missing persons, joined military forces that met the two at the border. From there they were taken to a military base in the country’s center, where they were to be reunited with family members.

The step was widely viewed in Israel as a public relations gambit, with Hamas interested in somewhat rehabilitating its image since its gunmen conducted brutal massacres of Israeli civilians in the terror group’s unprecedented attack on southern communities.

Eight other members of Judith and Natalie’s wider family are among the hostages. Two members of the wider family were killed by terrorists in Hamas’s October 7 onslaught.

Top American officials including US President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have said Hamas’s atrocities were as bad as if not worse than those carried out by the jihadist Islamic State group, which conquered and held large swaths of Syrian and Iraq territory between 2014-2017.

This handout picture courtesy of the United States Embassy in Jerusalem, taken on October 20, 2023, shows Natalie Raanan (L) and her mother Judith Raanan speaking on the phone with US President Joe Biden, after they were held hostage and later released by the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group. (US Embassy in Jerusalem/AFP)

“Hamas is presenting itself to the world at this hour as one that releases hostages for humanitarian reasons, but in reality, we are talking about a murderous terror group, which at this hour is holding babies, children, women, and elderly captive,” IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said in a short statement.

Hagari said the IDF was continuing its efforts to return hostages to Israel while still preparing for the “next stages of the fighting,” which is expected to include a major ground offensive. “The fighting is likely to last many more weeks,” he added.

Qatar helmed the negotiations with Hamas that led to the release, a senior diplomatic source told The Times of Israel, adding that the United States also contributed to the effort.

The destruction caused by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Nahal Oz, near the Israel-Gaza border, in southern Israel, October 20, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The step followed efforts by Qatar taken to “prove to the American people and the world that the claims made by Biden and his fascist administration [against the group] are false and baseless,” a Hamas spokesperson said.

CNN reported that one reason for the release was Judith Raanan’s health.

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.

At the same time, unconfirmed media reports tied the release to the expected entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza through Egypt’s Rafah border crossing.

Hamas later put out a video showing the release of  Judith and Natalie Raanan, in which members of the terror group — whose bodies and faces are blurred — are seen taking the mother and daughter out of a car. The video then shows the pair before Hamas hands them over to the Red Cross.

The White House issued a statement from Biden in which he said he was “overjoyed” that the two “will soon be reunited with their family, who has been wracked with fear.”

Biden, who spoke earlier in the day with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, thanked “the government of Qatar and the government of Israel for their partnership in this work.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with US President Joe Biden in the IDF’s Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on October 20, 2023. (Prime Minister’s Office)

“Jill and I have been holding close in our hearts all the families of unaccounted-for Americans,” he continued. “And, as I told those families when I spoke with them last week, we will not stop until we get their loved ones home. As president, I have no higher priority than the safety of Americans held hostage around the world.”

Biden spoke by phone with Judith and Natalie Raanan after they were released, with the White House saying they “relayed that they will have the full support of the US government as they recover from this terrible ordeal.”

The US president held an earlier call with other members of the Raanan family as well.

Judith and Natalie Raanan

Judith Raanan and her daughter Natalie, from the Chicago area, had traveled to Israel to celebrate the 85th birthday of Judith’s mother at Kibbutz Nahal Oz as well as the Jewish holiday season.

The pair had sent their community updates as the trip progressed and were enjoying “this really special mom and daughter time together” before disappearing after Hamas launched its October 7 assault, their rabbi Meir Hecht said earlier this month.

Judith Raanan, left, and her daughter Natalie in undated photos. (Courtesy)

“We received this terrible news that Judith and her daughter Natalie are missing and apparently were most likely taken as hostages to Gaza,” Hecht said. “It feels like our community has been violated.”

They had been celebrating Simchat Torah, a festive Jewish holiday that marks the conclusion of the annual reading of the Torah. They were in Nahal Oz, a kibbutz in Israel about a mile (1.61 kilometers) from the Gaza border.

As the horror of the attack unfolded, the two sent frantic messages to loved ones from a sheltered room describing sounds of shooting and violence around them before falling silent.

Natalie’s father, Uri Raanan of Illinois, said that he spoke to his daughter by telephone following her release. “She’s doing good. She’s doing very good,” Raanan, who lives in the Chicago suburbs, told the Associated Press. “I’m in tears, and I feel very, very good.”

The 71-year-old said he saw on the news that an American mother and daughter would be released by Hamas, and he spent the day hoping they meant his daughter and her mother, Judith.

Knowing Natalie may be able to celebrate her 18th birthday next week at home with family and friends feels “wonderful. The best news,” Uri Raanan said

He said he believes Natalie and Judith to be in transit to Tel Aviv to reunite with relatives, and that both will be back in the US early next week.

This photo provided by the Raanan family shows Natalie Raanan and her father, Uri Raanan, in Mexico. (Courtesy of the Raanan family via AP)

Judith had spent much of her early life in Israel before moving to the US, her family told The New York Times. She is a painter devoted to Jewish religious and Israeli themes.

Chicago friend Chavah Rochel Golden described her as always “quite Israeli, whether she was here or there.”

“She missed being around Israelis. She felt at home with Israelis, and she missed that — the energy of Israel.”

Natalie Raanan, 17, recently graduated from high school and was looking forward to taking a break and visiting family overseas, her uncle, Avi Zamir, said at a community event for the Raanans in Evanston, Illinois, on October 12.

“[A] kind person. She’s a sweetheart. She loves animals,” Zamir said then. “We fear for her. We pray for her. We hope she’s together with her mom.”

Through tears, Natalie Raanan’s aunt, Sigal Zamir, had said: “I pray for them to come back alive. They’re innocent and loving, and they didn’t do anything.”

Just before she left for Israel, Judith Raanan dropped off a pink prayer book for the Hechts’ 7-year-old daughter, who loves the color, said Yehudis Hecht, the rabbi’s wife and Judith’s friend.

“Judith, we’re thinking of you. Of your resilience, your hope, your love, your generosity, your faith and strength,” Yehudis Hecht said then. “We know you’re a strong woman and we pray that we see you safely very soon with your dear Natalie.”

Over 200 hostages

Nearly two weeks after Hamas’s onslaught on southern Israel, some 100 to 200 people remain unaccounted for, with bodies still being found and the actual number of hostages held captive in Gaza still unknown.

The Israel Defense Forces said Thursday that 203 people are known to have been taken hostage by the terror group during their devastating attacks on October 7.

Some 30 of the captives are children under the age of 16, and another 10 to 20 are over the age of 60.

The data was presented Thursday by Maj. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Alon, who is commanding intelligence efforts to find the abductees.

The army believes the majority of the hostages held in Gaza are alive, though several bodies were taken by Hamas terrorists, according to Alon.

Some 1,400 people were killed by Hamas terrorists during the assault, during which around 2,500 gunmen swarmed into at least 22 Israeli communities and army bases as well as a music festival, slaughtering nearly anybody they encountered and taking others hostage. The attacks turned communities into rubble and left highways and fields strewn with bodies, some of whom are only being found or identified now.

The IDF said it is still finding bodies inside the Gaza buffer zone near the border with Israel, where troops have conducted limited raids.

Most of those bodies recovered in the border area belong to terrorists, but some slain victims have been found, such as Noya Dan, a 12-year-old Israeli girl with autism, and her grandmother Carmela, 80, whose remains were located Thursday, according to Hebrew media reports.

“With the beginning of the war, I accepted responsibility over the… painful and sensitive task that touches the hearts of every Israeli citizen — locating some 200 hostages and missing that are in the hands of a murderous terror organization, and returning them home,” Alon said.

File: Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon speaks at the Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv on January 28, 2019. (INSS)

Alon said his mission faces several challenges but his personnel were working around the clock “to bring our people back.”

In the days since the attack, Israel has responded with an intense bombing campaign that Hamas health officials say has claimed around 4,100 lives (the numbers cannot be independently confirmed). Israel says its offensive is aimed at destroying Hamas’s infrastructure, and has vowed to eliminate the entire terror group, which rules the Strip. It says it is targeting all areas where Hamas operates, while seeking to minimize civilian casualties.

Some family members of Israelis being held captive in Gaza fumed on Wednesday after Netanyahu said Israel would allow humanitarian aid to be transferred into the territory via Egypt without any concessions for their loved ones in exchange.

After prodding by Washington, Israel said it would allow water, medicine and food to reach southern Gaza from Egypt — supplies that have been cut off since Hamas’s massacre. Up to 20 trucks of aid are slated to enter Gaza Friday for the first time since the start of the war, Biden said Wednesday, adding that the number would hopefully increase in the future.

A trilateral committee of Israel, the United States and Egypt was formed to facilitate and monitor the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza through Cairo’s Rafah crossing, a UN official told The Times of Israel.

“The decision to allow humanitarian aid to the murderers of Gaza has caused great anger among the family members,” the Bring Them Home Now organization, formed to represent families of those kidnapped, said in a statement.

“We remind you that children, babies, women, soldiers, men and the elderly — some of whom have serious health issues, are wounded and shot — are being held underground like animals without any human conditions, and the government of Israel is treating the murderers to baklava and medicine,” the group said.

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