July 21st, 2024

Israel strikes Gaza after 2 captives freed, and there are signs that aid may soon enter from Egypt

By Najib Jobain And Joseph Krauss, The Associated Press on October 21, 2023.

A flock of birds fly as the sun sets at the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) – Israel and Palestinian militants traded fire on Saturday after Hamas released an American woman and her teenage daughter, the first of some 200 captives to be freed after the militant group’s Oct. 7 rampage into Israel. Meanwhile, there were indications that the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza would soon open to allow in humanitarian aid.

Israel has sealed off the territory for two weeks, forcing Palestinians to ration food and to drink filthy water from wells. Hospitals say they are running low on medicine and fuel for emergency generators amid a territory-wide blackout.

A line of empty flatbed trucks could be seen moving on the Gaza side, perhaps in preparation for bringing in the desperately needed aid. The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem said it had information that Rafah would open later Saturday for foreigners to depart Gaza, but similar previous announcements have proven premature.

The release came amid growing expectations of a ground offensive that Israel says is aimed at rooting out the militant group, which has ruled Gaza for 16 years. Israel said Friday it does not plan to take long-term control over the tiny territory, home to some 2.3 million Palestinians.

Hamas said it released Judith Raanan and her 17-year-old daughter, Natalie, for humanitarian reasons in an agreement with Qatar, a Persian Gulf nation that has often served as a Mideast mediator.

The two had been on a trip from their home in suburban Chicago to Israel to celebrate Jewish holidays, the family said. They were in the kibbutz of Nahal Oz, near Gaza, on Oct. 7 when Hamas and other militants stormed into southern Israeli towns, killing hundreds and abducting 203 others.

The family had heard nothing from them since the attack and were later told by U.S. and Israeli officials that they were being held in Gaza, Natalie’s brother Ben said.

U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with the two freed hostages and their relatives. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which transported the freed Americans from Gaza to Israel, said their release was “a sliver of hope.”

Relatives of other captives welcomed the release and appealed for more people to be freed.

Hamas said in a statement that it was working with mediators “to close the case” of hostages if security circumstances permit. The group added that it is committed to mediation efforts by Egypt, Qatar and other countries.

Qatar said it would continue its dialogue with Israel and Hamas in hopes of winning the release of all hostages “with the ultimate aim of de-escalating the current crisis and restoring peace.”

Associated Press reporters saw two large explosions in northern Gaza early Saturday, and rockets set off air raid sirens in a nearby Israeli town.

A potential Israeli ground assault is likely to lead to a dramatic escalation in casualties on both sides in urban fighting. More than 1,400 people in Israel have been killed in the war – mostly civilians slain during the Hamas incursion. Palestinian militants have continued to launch unrelenting rocket attacks into Israel – more than 6,900 projectiles since Oct. 7, according to Israel.

More than 4,100 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Health Ministry run by Hamas. That includes a disputed number of people who died in a hospital explosion earlier this week.

Speaking to lawmakers about Israel’s long-term plans for Gaza, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant laid out a three-stage plan that seemed to suggest Israel did not intend to reoccupy the territory it left in 2005.

First, Israeli airstrikes and “maneuvering” – a presumed reference to a ground attack – would aim to root out Hamas. Next will come a lower intensity fight to defeat remaining pockets of resistance. And, finally, a new “security regime” will be created in Gaza along with “the removal of Israel’s responsibility for life in the Gaza Strip,” Gallant said.

Gallant did not say who Israel expected to run Gaza if Hamas is toppled or what the new security regime would entail.

Israel occupied Gaza from 1967 until 2005, when it pulled up settlements and withdrew soldiers. Two years later, Hamas took over. Some Israelis blame the withdrawal from Gaza for the five wars and countless smaller exchanges of fire since then.

The humanitarian crisis has worsened for Gaza’s civilians every day since Israel halted entry of supplies. Two days after Israel announced a deal to allow Egypt to send in aid, the border remained closed Friday as Egypt repaired the Rafah crossing, damaged by Israeli strikes.

Over a million people have been displaced in Gaza. Many heeded Israel’s orders to evacuate from north to south within the sealed-off enclave on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. But Israel has continued to bomb areas in southern Gaza where Palestinians had been told to seek safety, and some appear to be going back to the north because of bombings and difficult living conditions in the south.

Gaza’s overwhelmed hospitals were rationing their dwindling resources.

Generators in Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest, were operating at the lowest setting to conserve fuel while providing power to vital departments such as intensive care, hospital director Mohammed Abu Selmia said. Others worked in darkness. The lack of medical supplies and water make it difficult to treat the mass of victims from the Israeli strikes, he said.

The Palestine Red Crescent Society said it had received a threat from the Israeli military to bomb Al-Quds Hospital. It said Israel has demanded the immediate evacuation of the Gaza City hospital, which has more than 400 patients and thousands of displaced civilians who sought refuge on its grounds, it said.

Work continued Friday to repair the road at the Rafah crossing with Egypt, Gaza’s only entry point not controlled by Israel. Trucks unloaded gravel, and bulldozers and other equipment were used to fill in large craters.

But there also appeared to still be differences over the manner of delivering aid. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was working with Egypt, Israel, the U.S. and others to overcome the “impasse” preventing the trucks from entering, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters Friday.

Guterres wants to ensure “meaningful” numbers of trucks cross daily, that inspection of truck cargo is “expedited” and that U.N. authorities have fuel to distribute the supplies within Gaza.

More than 200 trucks and some 3,000 tons of aid were positioned near the crossing. Israel said the supplies could only go to civilians and that it would “thwart” any diversions by Hamas. It was unclear if fuel for the hospital generators would be allowed to enter.

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Krauss reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press journalists Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed to this report.

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