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US mother and daughter hostages released by Hamas

Hamas has released two of the 150-or-so hostages kidnapped when fighters rampaged through southern Israel

Mother and daughter Judith and Natalie Raanan, snatched on October 7, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office confirmed.

The women, who were taken from Nahal Oz kibbutz, near the Gaza border, were on their way to a military base in central Israel, a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.

Media reports in the United States said they were from Evanston, a suburb of Chicago.

They were the first hostages to be freed since Hamas gunmen burst into Israel nearly two weeks ago, killing 1400 people, mainly civilians, and taking around 200 hostages.

Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for Hamas’s armed wing, said the hostages were released in response to Qatari mediation efforts: “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”.

Most hostages believed  alive

An Israeli army statement earlier in the day said a majority of the hostages were alive.

Israel levelled a northern Gaza district earlier on Friday after giving families a half-hour warning to escape and hit an Orthodox Christian church where others had been sheltering.

Israel has vowed to wipe out Hamas, which rules Gaza, relentlessly pounding the strip with air strikes, putting the enclave’s 2.3 million people under a total siege and banning shipments of food, fuel and medical supplies.

The secretary-general of the United Nations visited the crossing between the besieged Gaza Strip and Egypt, and said humanitarian aid must be allowed across as soon as possible.

At least 4137 Palestinians have been killed, including hundreds of children, and 13,000 wounded in Gaza, the Palestinian health ministry said.

The UN says more than a million have been made homeless.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said on Friday that achieving Israel’s objectives would not be quick or easy.

“We will topple the Hamas organisation. We will destroy its military and governing infrastructure. It’s a phase that will not be easy. It will have a price,” he told a parliamentary committee.

He added that the subsequent phase would be more drawn out, but was aimed at achieving “a completely different security situation” with no threat to Israel from Gaza.

‘War crime that cannot be ignored’

“It’s not a day, it’s not a week, and unfortunately it’s not a month,” he said.

The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the main Palestinian Christian denomination, said that overnight Israeli forces had struck the Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza City, where hundreds of Christians and Muslims had sought sanctuary.

It said targeting churches that were used as shelters for people fleeing bombing was “a war crime that cannot be ignored”.

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 by fighter jets 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.

Israel has already told all civilians to evacuate the northern half of the Gaza Strip, which includes Gaza City. Many people have yet to leave saying they fear losing everything and have nowhere safe to go with southern areas also under attack.

In Zahra, a northern Gaza town, residents said their entire district of some 25 apartment buildings was razed.

They received Israeli warning messages on their mobile phones at breakfast, followed 10 minutes later by a small drone strike. After another 20 minutes, F-16 warplanes brought the buildings down in huge explosions and clouds of dust.

Ceasefire demands grow

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.

International attention has focused on getting aid to Gaza through the one access point not controlled by Israel, the Rafah crossing to Egypt.

Western leaders have so far mostly offered support to Israel’s campaign against Hamas, although there is mounting unease about the plight of civilians in Gaza.

Many Muslim states, however, have called for an immediate ceasefire, and protests demanding an end to the bombardment were held in cities across the Islamic world on Friday.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan called on Israel to end “its operations amounting to genocide”.

Biden formally asked Congress on Friday for billions of dollars in US military aid for Israel. But has also said: “We can’t ignore the humanity of innocent Palestinians”.

—AAP

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