By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Eric Cox
GAZA/EVANSTON, Illinois (Reuters) -Two newly freed American hostages, a Chicago-area woman and her teenage daughter, were reunited with family inside Israel on Friday as relatives celebrated back home in Illinois, nearly two weeks after Hamas gunmen abducted them and dozens of others near Gaza.
Judith Tai Raanan, 59, and her daughter Natalie, 17, were handed over to Israeli forces at the Gaza Strip border on Friday, becoming the first captives whose release by Hamas has been confirmed by both sides since the latest round of Arab-Israeli bloodshed erupted.
The release was first announced by Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for the armed wing of Hamas, the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, and confirmed a short time later in a statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Israeli leader said the mother and daughter, from the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, were "on their way to a meeting point at a military base in the center of the country, where their family members are waiting for them."
Reached by phone in Bannockburn, Illinois, outside Chicago, Uri Raanan, the teenager's father, said he spoke with his daughter by phone. "She sounds very, very good, very happy - and she looks good."
Natalie Raanan's uncle, Avraham Zamir, said by telephone from his home in Illinois, that the family was joyful the pair had been safely released. "But there are still many families whose loved ones are still being held hostage, and we will continue our efforts for their release," he said.
According to both Netanyahu and relatives, the mother and daughter were abducted from Kibbutz Nahal Oz during the surprise assault on southern Israel carried out from Gaza by Iranian-backed Islamist militants of Hamas on Oct. 7.
The pair were visiting the kibbutz, about a mile from the Gaza border as part of a trip that began in September to celebrate the Jewish holidays, the younger Raanan's high school graduation and the 85th birthday of her grandmother, family members said.
Friends described Judith Raanan to the New York Times as an artist and skilled cook of Israeli food who is devoted to her Jewish faith, which informs her paintings, and kept kosher in her home. She had recently worked as a home aide for elderly people, the Times reported.
Natalie Raanan's brother, Ben Raanan, told the Denver Post his sister was weighing whether to find work in the fashion industry, become an interior designer or apprentice as a tattoo artist.
IMAGES OF FREEDOM
The mother and daughter were pictured in an image carried by Israeli media showing a group of uniformed Israel Defense Forces (IDF) personnel escorting them from the border moments after their release. The two appeared healthy as they walked through the illuminated darkness, hand-in-hand with Israeli Brigadier General Gal Hirsch, the IDF's chief hostage negotiator.
U.S. President Joe Biden thanked Qatar and Israel for their partnership in securing the release of the two women. The president said on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, that he had spoken with the Raanans by telephone. And he posted a photo of them, apparently taken during that call.
Hamas separately released a video of the two women being turned over to workers with the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC).
Filmed after dark, the footage shows the mother and daughter stepping out of a vehicle, their wrists gripped by a man with a black bandana covering his face. The pair are then seen being escorted into an ICRC vehicle by a woman in a white ICRC vest.
The Raanans were among about 200 hostages that Hamas said it took during the deadly rampage into communities and military bases in southern Israel, part of the bloodiest attack on the country since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Hamas has said 50 more captives are held by other armed groups in the coastal Palestinian enclave. It said more than 20 hostages have been killed by Israeli air strikes, but has not given any further details.
RELEASE A 'FIRST STEP'
Hamas said the two women, who Israel's Kan public broadcaster reported were dual Israeli-American nationals, were freed "for humanitarian reasons" in response to Qatari mediation.
Hamas has previously described captives with "foreign" nationalities as "guests" who would be released when circumstances allow, without saying if that included Israelis with dual nationality.
A source briefed on the hostage negotiations called the release of the two Americans "a first step," adding, "discussions are ongoing for more releases."
American and British officials said they have been working with Qatar to secure the release of hostages, including their own citizens, held in Gaza. Other countries whose citizens were taken captive include Thailand, Argentina, Germany, France and Portugal.
Israel responded to the Oct. 7 attack, which killed 1,400 Israelis, by pounding Gaza with air strikes, killing more than 4,000 people, and has said it will act to free the hostages while wiping out Hamas.
Netanyahu's options for striking back at Hamas are certain to be hampered by concern for the safety of the Israeli captives seized in the raid, as a nation scarred by past hostage crises faces perhaps its worst one yet.
The prime minister has vowed “mighty vengeance,” but the fate of the Israeli soldiers, elderly people, women and children taken into Gaza complicates how Israel delivers on that promise while abiding by a longstanding principle of leaving no one behind.
(Reporting by Enas Alashray in Cairo and and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; additional reporting by Eric Cox and Tom Polansek in Evanston, Illinois; Writing by Michael Georgy and Steve Gorman; Editing by Grant McCool)