- Trucks carrying relief still stuck on Rafah border.
- Palestinians have no safe place to go as Israel urges evacuation.
- UN secretary-general toured checkpoint on Egypt’s side of border.
As Israel pummelled the densely populated region where millions awaited the promised aid supplies on Saturday, Hamas freed two American prisoners held in Gaza, providing a “sliver of hope” to desperate families.
According to Israeli sources, Hamas fighters killed at least 1,400 people, largely civilians, and took more than 200 people captive when it surged into Israel from the Gaza Strip on October 7.
The release of mother and daughter Judith and Natalie Raanan provided a rare “sliver of hope” because the captives’ fate has remained unclear, according to Mirjana Spoljaric, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Declaring himself “overjoyed” by the release, US President Joe Biden visited Israel a few days ago to show his support for the ally and to push for the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza.
Trucks carrying relief the United Nations calls a “lifeline” are still stuck on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing into Gaza, though Biden said movement could begin in the “next 24 to 48 hours”.
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas and says around 1,500 of the group’s fighters were left dead in clashes before its army regained control of the area under attack on October 7.
Biden said Friday he believes the attack was motivated partly by Saudi Arabia’s plan to recognise Israel.
Israel’s military activities in Gaza have martyred over 4,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians and children, and is massing troops on the border for an expected ground invasion of Gaza.
However, this full-blown land offensive carries risks, including hostages from Israel and around the world held by Hamas.
Hostages freed but violence continues
Two women, mother and daughter Judith and Natalie Raanan, who were held hostage by Hamas, were released but in spite of that, violence in Gaza continued overnight.
Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for Hamas’s armed wing Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, 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”.
Despite the release of two hostages, Israeli aircraft struck six homes in northern Gaza early on Saturday, martyring at least eight Palestinians and injuring 45 Palestinian, media reported.
The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the main Palestinian Christian denomination, said that Israeli forces had struck the Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza City, where hundreds of Christians and Muslims had sought refuge.
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.
Asked if Israel had so far followed the laws of war in its response, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated on Friday that Israel has the right to defend itself and make sure Hamas is not able to launch attacks again, Reuters reported.
“It’s important that operations be conducted in accordance with international law, humanitarian law, the law of war… There will be plenty of time to make assessments about how these operations were conducted but I can just say from the part of the United States, this continues to be important to us,” he added
Israel vows to ‘fight until victory’
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to “fight until victory” in Gaza, signalling no pause in his military’s bombardment and expected invasion of the enclave after Hamas released two US hostages.
They were the first hostages confirmed by both sides in the conflict to be freed since Hamas gunmen burst into Israel, killing 1,400 people, mainly civilians, and taking around 200 hostages.
“Two of our abductees are at home. We are not giving up on the effort to return all abducted and missing people,” Netanyahu said in a statement released late Friday night.
“At the same time, we’ll continue to fight until victory,” he added.
Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, speaking in front of a parliamentary committee, said 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,” Gallant said.
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. “It’s not a day, it’s not a week, and unfortunately it’s not a month,” he said.
Israel-Saudi Arabia normalisation
President Biden on Friday suggested that the surprise attack by Hamas was aimed at disrupting a potential normalisation of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia sought by Riyadh.
Biden suggested Saudi wanted to recognise Israel in the comments he made at a campaign fundraiser.
Riyadh has not followed suit, saying Palestinian statehood goals should be addressed first.
“One of the reasons Hamas moved on Israel … they knew that I was about to sit down with the Saudis,” Biden said. “Guess what? The Saudis wanted to recognise Israel.”
The potential normalisation of relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states was a top priority for Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his June trip to Riyadh, although he acknowledged no progress should be expected imminently.
Blinken told CNN on October 8 that “it wouldn’t be a surprise that part of the motivation (for the attack) may have been to disrupt efforts to bring Saudi Arabia and Israel together.”
Biden told CBS’ 60 Minutes in an interview that aired last Sunday that the prospect of normalisation was “still alive, it’s going to take time.”
Aid stocked at Rafah border for days
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.
Biden, who visited Israel on Wednesday, said he believed trucks carrying aid would get through in the next 24-48 hours.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres toured the checkpoint on Egypt’s side on Friday and called for a meaningful number of trucks to enter Gaza every day and checks — which Israel insists on to stop aid reaching Hamas — to be quick and pragmatic.
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.