Hamas released two elderly Israeli hostages Monday evening, after 17 days in captivity, the third and fourth captives freed by the terror group in recent days.
The two, Nurit Cooper, 79, and Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, were released from Gaza into Egypt late Monday, and were then transferred to the IDF, which brought them to an Israeli hospital for examination.
At least 220 others — including the respective husbands of both women, Amiram Cooper, 84, and Oded Lifshitz, 83 — are believed to still be held hostage by Hamas. The couples were taken captive on October 7 from their homes in Kibbutz Nir Oz. Many others were slaughtered by Hamas terrorists in the community.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had facilitated the release of the hostages, “transporting them out of Gaza this evening,” the organization wrote on X.
Video footage, which aired on Egyptian TV, showed the two women being transported in the back of ambulances, while receiving medical treatment.
The release came after reports proliferated in Hebrew media earlier that up to 50 hostages with foreign citizenships could be freed by the terror group. The Wall Street Journal, citing three unnamed officials with knowledge of the matter, said that effort failed over Israel’s refusal to accept Hamas’s demand to allow fuel into Gaza.
שתי חטופות נוספות שוחררו מרצועת עזה, והובאו למעבר רפיח. צוות ישראלי בדרכו אליהן על מנת להביא אותן חזרה לארץ. משפחותיהן של שתי החטופות, נורית קופר ויוכבד ליפשיץ, קשישות תושבות ניר עוז שנחטפו ביחד עם בני זוגן, קיבלו הודעה על שחרורן. עמירם קופר ועודד ליפשיץ עדיין מוחזקים בידי חמאס pic.twitter.com/lZBaknIfFR
— מעריב אונליין (@MaarivOnline) October 23, 2023
Just before midnight on Monday, the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed that the two women had been released and handed over to Israeli forces, who were bringing them to an Israeli hospital for a full assessment, where their family members were waiting for them.
The government thanked both Egypt and the Red Cross for their roles in freeing and transporting Lifshitz and Cooper, and vowed to “continue to work to the best of our abilities and with full effort to locate all the missing and bring all the hostages home.”
In her first public comments since being released, Lifshitz told the Ynet news site overnight Monday-Tuesday that she doesn’t know where she was held.
“They schooled us,” she said, apparently referring to the October 7 Hamas onslaught. “They loaded me onto a motorcycle… with one terrorist holding me from the front and the other from behind so that I wouldn’t fall. We crossed the border fence into the Strip, and at first they held me in the town of Abasan al-Kabira, which is close to [Kibbutz] Be’eri. After that, I don’t know where I was taken.”
The spokesperson for Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Obeida, announced earlier Monday that the terror group had released the two Israeli hostages for “humanitarian reasons,” following Egyptian and Qatari mediation.
On Saturday, Abu Obeida claimed that the terror group wanted to release the same two hostages, but that Israel declined to accept them. Following the claim, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said it would not respond to “Hamas’s propaganda lies.”
Daniel Lifshitz, the grandson of Yocheved and Oded, told reporters on Monday night that his family was “excited, happy, and overjoyed by the official notice” that his grandmother, as well as Cooper, “are coming back to us.”
He said that the whole family “is waiting for them and we are also waiting for all of the hostages from this kibbutz, as well as all of the hostages in general.” Lifshitz added that he hoped both women were in good health, and that the family was waiting desperately to be reunited with Yocheved.
Asked about the status of his grandfather, Daniel said that he did not have “any news about anything else.”
There was no immediate indication why Cooper and Lifshitz were selected for release, other than their advanced age and potential health complications. Lifshitz’s daughter, Sharone, had said her mother uses oxygen when she sleeps and suffers from significant back pain. Cooper’s son, Rotem, had told a local US TV network that “they might not survive if they don’t get their medicines.”
Egyptian TV station Al Qahera News said the hostages were released through the Rafah crossing with Egypt, claiming that the move came about following intense Egyptian efforts.
The Lifshitz couple, who were among the founders of Kibbutz Nir Oz, were peace activists and regularly transported patients from Gaza to receive medical treatment in hospitals across Israel.
On Friday evening, Hamas released two American-Israelis, mother and daughter Judith and Natalie Ra’anan, also via the Rafah crossing with Egypt.
The two were handed over to the Red Cross, which then handed them over to Israel. Hamas also said that release was made “for humanitarian reasons.” Eight other members of Judith and Natalie’s extended family are among the hostages. Two members of the extended family were killed by terrorists in Hamas’s October 7 onslaught.
US officials over the past week have reportedly been urging Israel to delay its ground operation in the Gaza Strip to allow more time for negotiations to release more hostages.
Speaking to reporters earlier Monday, IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said the number of confirmed hostages stood at 222. He said that the number included a not-insignificant number of foreign nationals and that it had taken time for them to be identified and for their families to be notified. The number appeared to stand at 220, following the latest release.
When asked whether the ground operation was being delayed to allow more time for attempts to secure the release of further hostages, Hagari said, “We are working in all ways to free the hostages and bring them home.”
Hagari refused to confirm or deny reports that some 50 hostages with foreign citizenships were slated to be freed, saying only that Israel does not differentiate between “who has what passport, what race, gender or religion they are” when it comes to securing their release.
Emanuel Fabian, Jessica Steinberg, and agencies contributed to this report.