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Posters with images of kidnapped and missing Israelis on Regent Street in London.

Explainer: Here is what we know about the Israeli hostage situation in Gaza

US President Joe Biden has said discussions about a Gaza ceasefire can only take place if Hamas frees all hostages.

LAST NIGHT, TWO elderly women who were being held as hostages by Hamas militants in Gaza were handed over to the Red Cross.

Israeli citizens Yocheved Lifshitz (85) and Nurit Cooper (79) were released, but their husbands, aged 83 and 84, remain captive with more than 200 other civilians.

The release of the two women took the total number of people freed to four, with an American woman and her teenage daughter having been released three days earlier.

Here is what we know about the hostage situation so far.


More than 220 Israelis, dual nationals and foreigners were kidnapped by Hamas militants during their shock attack on southern Israel on 7 October, which killed more than 1,400 people, according to Israeli officials.

Speaking today on a visit to Israel, France’s President Emmanuel Macron said that releasing hostages held by Hamas must be the “first objective” of the war in Gaza.

“The first objective we should have today is the release of all hostages, without any distinction, because this is an awful crime to play with the lives of children, adults, old people, civilians and soldiers,” Macron said after meeting Israel’s President Isaac Herzog.

Hamas said it had released the two women last night for “compelling humanitarian reasons”.

The daughter of freed Yocheved Lifshitz told Times Radio that her mother has complex health needs.

israel-palestinians Yocheved Lifshitz at a hospital in Tel Aviv after being released by Hamas militants (Jenny Yerushalmy / Ichilov hospital/AP) (Jenny Yerushalmy / Ichilov hospital/AP) / Ichilov hospital/AP)

Three days earlier, American mother and daughter Judith and Natalie Raanan were freed, with Hamas militants also citing humanitarian reasons, as well as efforts by Qatar and Egypt.

All four hostages released so far have been taken to Israel via Egypt.

After the release of the two Americans on Friday, Hamas said it was “working with all mediators to implement the movement’s decision to close the civilian (hostage) file if appropriate security conditions allow.”

While Egypt has traditionally in recent years served as the main mediator between Israel and Palestinian groups, the focus is mainly on Qatar helping to return the hostages safely.

Qatar is a major donor of aid to Gaza and two Hamas leaders are based in the Gulf state.

It has also hosted Hamas’s political office for more than 10 years

A Qatari foreign ministry spokesman said on Friday that the country had mediated between Hamas and the United States and that the release followed “many days of continuous communication between all the parties involved”.

“We will continue our dialogue with both the Israelis and Hamas, and 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,” said the spokesman, Majid al-Ansari.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid a visit to Qatar on a trip to the region last week and French President Macron has said that Qatar played a “decisive role” in securing the release of the two American hostages.

french-president-emmanuel-macron-arrives-at-the-ben-gurion-airport-tuesday-oct-24-2023-in-tel-aviv-emmanuel-macron-is-traveling-to-israel-to-show-frances-solidarity-with-the-country-and-further French President Emmanuel Macron arrives at the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv this morning Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“The most accommodating mediator is Qatar,” said Hasni Abidi, director of the Geneva-based Center for Studies and Research on the Arab and Mediterranean World (CERMAM).

“It knows Hamas well and is its loyal financial backer,” he said, in referring to Doha’s financing of the salaries of civil servants in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Qatar is also respected by the United States, Israel’s chief ally, and is home to the largest US military base in the region.

The International Committee of the Red Cross also contributed to these efforts. 

The organisation said in a statement: “The ICRC continues to call for the immediate release of all hostages. We are ready to visit the remaining hostages and to facilitate any future release following an agreement reached by the parties.

“While held in captivity, hostages must be allowed to receive humanitarian assistance and medical care.”


In addition to mediation efforts, the Israeli army inundated the Gaza Strip with leaflets today urging residents to provide information about the hostages held by Hamas in return for financial rewards.

The messages were dropped by Israeli aircraft amid the waves of air strikes targeting Gaza, that Hamas health officials said have killed more than 5,000 people.

smoke-rises-following-an-israeli-airstrike-in-the-gaza-strip-as-seen-from-southern-israel-monday-oct-23-2023-ap-photofrancisco-seco Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel yesterday Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“If you want a better future for yourself and your children, do the right thing and send us safe and useful information about kidnapped people in your area,” said the Arabic message on leaflets.

“The Israeli army promises to do everything to preserve your security and that of your homes, as well as a financial reward,” the leaflet added. “We guarantee you total discretion.”

The document provided a telephone number along with details regarding Telegram, Whatsapp and Signal messaging services, where information could be sent about the hostages.

The Israeli army has confirmed the launch of the effort.

“As part of the extensive efforts to free the Israeli and foreign national hostages held by the Hamas terrorist organization in Gaza, the (army) today used multiple channels to communicate with the residents of Gaza and ask for information about the hostages,” the army said in a statement.

Ground invasion

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned of a looming ground invasion of Gaza, raising the spectre of heavy urban combat and heightening the risk for the hostages.

On Sunday, Israel announced that it will intensify its bombardment of Gaza in order to minimise the risks to its troops when they begin a ground invasion.

However, the timing of the full-scale ground invasion remains unclear.

“Gaza is densely populated, the enemy is preparing a lot of things there – but we are also preparing for them,” Israel’s chief of staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi told one infantry brigade over the weekend.

gaza-city-palestinian-territories-23rd-oct-2023-a-palestinian-and-a-child-inspect-the-destruction-caused-by-an-israeli-strike-credit-mohammad-abu-elsebahdpaalamy-live-news A Palestinian and a child inspect the destruction caused by an Israeli strike yesterday

A ground invasion poses many challenges for Israeli troops, who are likely to face Hamas booby traps and tunnels, and must also weigh the safety of the over 200 hostages being held by the militants.

The Israeli government has come under criticism for its response to the hostage situation.

Since the attack, dozens of Israelis have held sit-ins in front of the defence ministry in Tel Aviv to demand the release of the hostages and the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Shira and Eli Albagh, whose daughter was kidnapped, are among those who have held a pavement vigil. Shira told the BBC last week she holds Israel responsible for failing to keep her daughter safe, but also the rest of the world for not recognising the threat of Hamas.

Eli said: “We want the government to put its attention…to talk with them (Hamas) to release the kidnapped”.

The BBC reported that banners at the vigil urged action from the military leadership, with slogans including “Bring our children home” and “Prisoner exchange”. There was also a sign saying “Bibi must resign” – Netanyahu’s nickname.

Hamas has previously demanded Israel release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the hostages, but more recently ruled out such a move ”until the end of the battle.”

So far, there are also no indications that Israel would be willing to negotiate any such prisoner-swap with Hamas.

Meanwhile, the raging war risks drawing in other countries, notably Lebanon, home to the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group which has engaged in daily exchanges of fire with Israeli forces.

At least 41 people have been killed in Lebanon – mostly combatants but also at least four civilians, including a Reuters journalist.

Four people have also been killed in Israel as a result of these exchanges with Lebanon- three soldiers and a civilian.

The US-based Institute for the Study of War has also reported a rise in attacks on Israeli and US targets from Iranian-backed groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

But US President Joe Biden said yesterday that any discussions about a Gaza ceasefire could only take place if Hamas frees all hostages.

“We should have those hostages released and then we can talk,” Biden said at a White House event when asked if he would support a “hostages-for-ceasefire” deal.

© AFP 2023 and with additional reporting from Diarmuid Pepper