Hamas frees two more hostages for ‘humanitarian reasons’ as hopes rise for deal to release 50 dual nationals

Hamas freed two hostages who are in “poor health” on Monday evening under a deal with the Red Cross – as hopes rise for a wider agreement that could see the release of 50 hostages who are dual national citizens.

More than 200 hostages were taken captive by Hamas during their incursion into Israel on 7 October and taken into Gaza, including a number of foreigners. Four have now been released.

Two US citizens, Judith Tai Ranaan and her daughter Natalie, were the first pair released into Israel on Friday after diplomatic pressure on Hamas. Those negotiations were overseen by Qatar, a state that has frequently been called on to serve as a neutral arbitrator in international disputes.

Hamas said on Monday that two more captives, thought to be Israeli citizens Nurit Yitzhak, 79, and Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, had been released “for humanitarian and poor health grounds” under a deal facilitated by the Red Cross.

A Hamas spokesperson indicated that they were the same hostages it had offered to release across the border on Friday, which the group claims Israel “refused to accept”.

Their whereabouts are not known but an International Committee of the Red Cross spokesperson said it “had facilitated the release of two more hostages by transporting them out of Gaza this evening.”

The Red Cross said: “Our role as a neutral intermediary between the warring parties makes this work possible. We are ready to visit the remaining hostages and to facilitate any future release. We are glad that these persons will be soon reunited with their families and loved ones.”

The New York Times reported on Monday that a senior Israeli military official said “conversations” had taken place between the United States and Qatar that could see the release of dual nationals “separate from any broader deal”.

At the same time, Israeli news channel i24News cited sources within Gaza saying “the finalization of a potential deal is currently underway, with Qatari mediation playing a crucial role”.

The news channel said that the hostages were expected to be handed over in the Khan Yunis area in the south of the Gaza Strip. Saudi news channel Al Arabiya also cited sources as saying a deal was close.

The nationalities of those subject to the deal have not been confirmed, but those held by Hamas are thought to include 10 Americans, 17 Thai citizens, 16 Argentinians, and eight German citizens, while there are fears for seven missing Britons, seven French citizens and four Portuguese citizens.

The UK Foreign Office said it was aware of reports of a deal and seeking further information.

The latest signs of a breakthrough come amid reports that the Biden administration had urged Israel to further delay its ground offensive in Gaza to allow more time for negotiations on freeing hostages, and to allow more humanitarian aid to reach Palestinians.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller declined to deny the claims in a press briefing on Monday, adding: “In all of our conversations [with Israel] we talk about the importance of having meaningful objectives and a plan to achieve those objectives, but beyond that I wouldn’t want to go into details. Ultimately, those are decisions that Israel has to make.”

A full ceasefire was not an option as it would allow Hamas to regroup, he added.

Of the potential for a hostage deal, Mr Miller said securing the release of hostages was “one of the top priorities” and the US has been engaging with Qatar, but “because of the delicate and very sensitive nature of this entire issue, we don’t find it productive to our objective to talk about the details publicly”.

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