Israeli ground assault on Gaza looms as Hamas releases first hostages | Israel-Hamas war

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The US has said it will keep working to free all Americans seized by Hamas, against the backdrop of an expected ground assault on Gaza, as the first released hostages were reunited with family and Israeli forces pounded Gaza, where millions of people are still awaiting promised aid deliveries.

Late on Friday, after speaking of his joy at the US hostage release, President Joe Biden appeared to agree with a reporter’s suggestion that Israel should delay any ground invasion of the enclave in order to get more hostages out. About 200 remain in captivity, with 10 Americans still unaccounted for.

The White House later said Biden did not fully hear the question, which was delivered as the president climbed the stairs to board Air Force One, over the sound of the plane’s engines.

“The president was far away. He didn’t hear the full question,” White House communications director Ben LaBolt said. “The question sounded like: ‘Would you like to see more hostages released?’ He wasn’t commenting on anything else,” LaBolt added.

A building destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in the central Gaza Strip city of al-Zahra on Friday
A building destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in the central Gaza Strip city of al-Zahra on Friday. The enclave is running desperately low on food, water and medicine. Photograph: Xinhua/Shutterstock

In a statement released on Friday night, Benjamin Netanyahu said both rescue efforts and military action would continue. “Two of our abductees are at home. We are not giving up on the effort to return all abducted and missing people,” the Israeli prime minister said. “At the same time, we’ll continue to fight until victory.”

It comes amid desperate scenes inside the Gaza Strip, with no sign of aid crossing the crucial Rafah border crossing with Egypt. Early on Saturday, Israeli aircraft struck six homes in the northern Gaza, killing at least eight Palestinians and injuring 45, Palestinian media reported.

The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the main Palestinian Christian denomination, said Israeli forces had struck the Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza City, where hundreds of Christians and Muslims had sought refuge. Gaza’s Hamas-run government media office said 18 Christian Palestinians had been killed, while the health ministry later gave a toll of 16.

The Israeli military said part of the church was damaged in a strike on a nearby Hamas command centre involved in launching rockets and mortars towards Israel, and that it was reviewing the incident. “The IDF [Israel Defence Forces] can unequivocally state that the church was not the target of the strike,” it said.

The United Nations humanitarian affairs office said more than 140,000 homes – nearly a third of all homes in Gaza – have been damaged, with nearly 13,000 completely destroyed.

Meanwhile, Uri Raanan, the father of freed teen US hostage Natalie Raanan, spoke of his joy on Friday, telling the Associated Press: “She’s doing good. She’s doing very good.”

Natalie and Judith Raanan speak on the phone with US President Joe Biden after being released by Hamas
Natalie and Judith Raanan speak on the phone with US President Joe Biden after being released by Hamas. Photograph: US Embassy in Jerusalem/AFP/Getty Images

Raanan, who lives in the Chicago suburbs, spoke to his daughter by telephone on Friday. “I’m in tears, and I feel very, very good,” he said. Knowing his daughter may be able to celebrate her 18th birthday next week at home with family and friends feels “wonderful – the best news”, he said.

Natalie Raanan, 17, and her mother, Judith, 59, were seized during the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October and held hostage in Gaza. They have now been transferred through the Rafah crossing into Egypt, where they were met by Israeli security forces, Netanyahu’s office said in a statement late on Friday.

Biden said he was “overjoyed” at the release and pledged to continue his efforts to secure the freedom of additional hostages. “We have been working around-the-clock to free American citizens who were taken hostage by Hamas. We will not stop until we secure the release of those who are still being held,” he said.

Natalie Raanan’s uncle, Avraham Zamir, said the family was joyful the pair had been safely released. “But there are still many families whose loved ones are still being held hostage, and we will continue our efforts for their release,” he said from his home in Illinois.

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said there were still 10 Americans who remain unaccounted for after Hamas’s attack “We know that some of them are being held hostage by Hamas,” Blinken told reporters.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, said the release of the two Americans was “a very good result” and expressed hope it could help pave the way for others to be freed, including French-Israelis feared held in Gaza.

Israeli military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said Israel was continuing to work to return hostages and find the missing, and its goals had not changed. “We are continuing the war against Hamas and ready for the next stage of the war,” he said.

Israel has amassed tanks and troops near the perimeter of Gaza for a planned ground invasion. Its bombardment of Gaza has killed at least 4,137 Palestinians, including hundreds of children, while more than a million have been displaced, according to Palestinian officials. Hamas members killed more than 1,400 Israelis in the attacks on 7 October; and Israel said that now at least 203 people had been taken hostage.

On Saturday, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, was expected to attend a conference on Saturday convened by the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, with Arab, European and African leaders focused on building pressure for a ceasefire and humanitarian relief.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, will take part in the summit, and leaders from Kuwait, Bahrain, South Africa, Italy, Spain, Greece, Cyprus and EU have also said they will attend.

The UK will be represented by the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, but the US was not planning to send a cabinet-level official. It was unclear on Friday night whether the participants would be able to agree on a joint statement.

Cleverly will emphasise the UK’s desire to prevent the regional spread of the conflict and mitigate the threat from Hamas.

With Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse

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