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Hamas Releases 2 U.S. Hostages, a Mother and Daughter

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Hamas still holds 10 other Americans hostage, according to the State Department, and President Biden vowed on Friday to make every effort to reunite their families.

“We will not stop until we get their loved ones home,” Mr. Biden said in a statement. “I have no higher priority than the safety of Americans held hostage around the world.” He asked the public to respect the privacy of the Raanans “as they recover and heal.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a news conference on Friday that “every hostage needs to be released and needs to be released now,” unconditionally.

Mr. Blinken said he could not discuss details of the negotiations to free Judith and Natalie Raanan. According to someone familiar with the negotiations, Hamas asked for nothing in return for their release.

Hamas, Mr. Biden and Mr. Blinken all noted the role played by the government of Qatar, a wealthy Persian Gulf emirate that allows Hamas leaders to live there in safety, and has often acted as a go-between to resolve conflicts between the group and Israel. Mr. Blinken said Qatar had provided “very important assistance” in the hostage negotiations.

A spokesman for Qatar’s Foreign Ministry, Majid Al-Ansari, said in a statement that the release of the hostages came after days of continuous talks. He said Qatar would continue its mediation.

“We hope these efforts will lead to the release of all civilian hostages from every nationality, with the ultimate aim of de-escalating the current crisis and restoring peace,” he said.

In a statement, Hamas said it had decided to work toward “closing the file” of the hostage issue, “should the appropriate security circumstances be provided.”

Ms. Raanan and her daughter went to Israel last month to celebrate the Jewish holidays and the 85th birthday of Judith’s mother at a kibbutz in the south of the country.

Judith Raanan was born in Israel and spent her early life there before settling in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill., where she raised a family. Natalie Raanan, who also lived in Israel as a child, graduated from a public high school in Deerfield, Ill., near Chicago.

Chavah Rochel Golden, a friend of Judith’s in Chicago, said that Judith had never forgotten her Israeli roots and that it was important to her that her daughter feel the same way.

“She was quite Israeli, whether she was here or there,” Ms. Golden said. “She missed being around Israelis. She felt at home with Israelis, and she missed that — the energy of Israel.”

On Friday, Rivka Benyihoun, another friend from Chicago, said she and her husband had been watching Israeli television for news of their friend.

“We are all embracing and crying together,” Ms. Benyihoun said. “I told my husband, ‘She’s a survivor. She’s going to make it.’”

Avi Zamir, Natalie’s uncle, said the family was overwhelmed with relief but was awaiting news of the women’s condition.

After receiving word of their release, Mr. Zamir called his son, a student at Deerfield High School outside Chicago, to share the news, and heard a classroom of suburban teenagers erupt in cheers.

“I can’t even tell you the voices of joy I heard over the phone,” he said. “It’s a joyful moment for all Americans right now.”

In a statement, Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois said he was “incredibly relieved” that the Raanans were safe.

“I cannot wait to welcome them back home after demonstrating immense strength and bravery in the face of unthinkable terror,” Mr. Pritzker said.

The situation of the more than 200 other hostages remains unclear. Israel has not publicly identified them, but military officials have said they include older people and children. Hamas has said that Israel’s bombing campaign in retaliation for the Oct. 7 attack has killed a number of hostages, along with the Hamas militants holding them.

Most of the captives were taken from small Israeli towns near the border with Gaza; others were abducted from military bases or from an all-night music festival. They include civilians, soldiers, peace activists, grandparents and a 9-month-old baby.

It was not clear why the Raanans were released before others, how they were treated in captivity or what Hamas intends to do with the remaining hostages. In the days after the raid, a Hamas official said it would kill captives if Israel continued to bomb homes in Gaza, but later the group said it wanted to trade them for Hamas members who are imprisoned in Israel or elsewhere.

Hamas has also acknowledged that it does not have all the hostages; some are held by smaller groups that took part in the assault on Israel.

On Friday, Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military spokesman, disputed Hamas’s claim that it had released the Raanans for humanitarian reasons. “This is actually a murderous terrorist organization that right now holds babies, children, women and elderly people hostage in the Gaza Strip,” he told reporters.

The issue of hostages has long been a deeply emotional one in Israel, as well as a tactic used in the past by Hamas and Hezbollah, the Shiite militant organization in Lebanon.

Hamas is believed to be holding two Israeli civilians who entered Gaza in 2014 on foot, as well as the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed during a war that year.

And in 2006, Hamas seized an Israel soldier, Gilad Shalit, and held him in Gaza for five years. He was exchanged for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom had been convicted of killing Israelis in terrorist attacks.

That same year, Israel fought a monthlong war with Hezbollah in Lebanon after it kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. The soldiers’ remains were returned to Israel in 2008 in exchange for five prisoners.

Shortly after the Oct. 7 attack, Hamas released video of a woman and two small children it said it had released at the Gaza border. But the woman, Avital Aladjem, told Israeli news media that she and the children had escaped shortly after crossing the border because their captors left them briefly alone. She said the children belonged to her neighbor, who was killed in the attack.

Earlier this week, Hamas released a short video of Mia Schem, 21, who was abducted during the Hamas assault on the music festival. In the video, she is shown with a bandaged arm and says that she has received medical treatment while in captivity. It is so far the only video the group has released of any of the hostages.

“At the moment I am in Gaza,” Ms. Schem says in the video, which was posted to Telegram channels affiliated with Hamas. “I just ask that I am returned as fast as possible to my family, to my parents, and to my siblings. Please get us out of here as quickly as possible.”

Aaron Boxerman, Julie Bosman Ephrat Livni and Ben Hubbard contributed reporting.

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