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The Evanston mother and daughter held hostage by Hamas have been released almost two weeks after their capture during a trip to Israel, ending what President Joe Biden called the “terrible ordeal” they and their family had endured.
Judith Raanan, 59, and her daughter Natalie Raanan, 17, were freed, handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross and are now in Israel, Israeli authorities said Friday. The White House and the State Department confirmed the Raanans’ release.
“Why they chose these two I do not know, but it’s a miracle,” said Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein, executive director of Chabad of Evanston, the synagogue that Judith Raanan attends.
Speaking outside of his home in Bannockburn Friday night, Uri Raanan, Natalie’s father and Judith’s former husband, told reporters that when he learned about his daughter’s release, it “was the best feeling.”
He said he’s looking forward to being reunited with Natalie next week; her birthday is on Tuesday. “I’m going to hug her and kiss her and it will be the best day of my life.”
First words from freed Evanston hostages: ‘Thank you so very, very much’
Waiting for the past two weeks for an update on his daughter’s whereabouts was “the worst situation,” Uri Raanan said. “I did not sleep at night. … Lots of phone calls in Israel. Lots of TVs, I have been glued to the TV for two weeks.”
Uri said Judith had a scratch on her hand but it was minor. Other than that mother and daughter were good, he said.
When the two women will return to Evanston isn’t known yet. However, Ben Raanan, Natalie’s brother, told CNN they may return sometime next week.
“That’s all dependent on what the hospitals say, and making sure their physical well-being and mental health well-being is at least okay for them to come here and start this next stage,” Ben Raanan said.
Hamas said in a statement that it released the pair in an agreement reached with Qatari officials. Maj. Doron Spielman, a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces, told CNN the Raanans were undergoing medical checks.
“They have been through a harrowing ordeal. We’re making sure they’re as well as possible,” Spielman said. “And pretty soon they’ll be back with their families, which in the darkness we’ve experienced, is a little bit of light.”
The north suburban mother and daughter are the first hostages released from among 203 people that Israeli military leaders have said were held by Hamas.
After their release, Biden spoke to the two women and, according to the White House, told them “they will have the full support of the U.S. government as they recover from this terrible ordeal.” The president also phoned Uri Raanan, a White House source told the Sun-Times.
Earlier, Biden released a statement saying he was “overjoyed that they will soon be reunited with their family, who has been wracked with fear.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a State Department briefing on Friday declined to detail the diplomatic back channels that resulted in the release of the Raanans because of the other hostages still being held. However, the Gulf state of Qatar played a major role.
“In this particular instance, I want to thank the Government of Qatar, for their very important assistance,” Blinken said, adding that 10 other Americans remain unaccounted for in the conflict. “We know that some of them are being held hostage by Hamas, along with an estimated 200 other hostages held in Gaza,” Blinken said.
Majid Al-Ansari, spokesperson for Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement, regarding the release of the Evanston women: “Today’s breakthrough comes after 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.”
National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby said on MSNBC that after their release, the Raanans were evaluated by Israeli health professionals who would provide, if needed, any medical care.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a statement that he was “incredibly relieved that Natalie and Judith Raanan of Evanston have been released from captivity in Gaza.”
“After being held against their will for nearly two weeks, they are now safe and receiving necessary medical treatment. I cannot wait to welcome them back home after demonstrating immense strength and bravery in the face of unthinkable terror,” Pritzker said. “We must continue to advocate and pray for the safe return of those still held by Hamas.”
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who represents Evanston, and who was notified by the State Department earlier Friday about the Raanans’ release, said in a statement, “I cannot wait to welcome them back home. I am sending them my love and strength. I will continue to pray and do all I can to ensure the safe and swift return of all other hostages held by Hamas.”
The Raanans had been missing since Oct. 7 when a surprise attack by Hamas near the border of Gaza sparked a war that has claimed thousands of Palestinian and Israeli lives.
Spielman said that at 6:30 a.m. local time, Hamas gunmen “broke into the home and dragged them out at gunpoint. They’ve been through God knows what over the last two weeks.”
Last week, a family member confirmed that the two were alive and among the hostages taken by Hamas. Their family met with Biden and State Department officials on Oct. 13 who confirmed the news, Avi Zamir, the husband of Natalie Raanan’s aunt, told the Sun-Times.
Judith Raanan works as an aesthetician. Natalie Raanan graduated from Deerfield High School last spring.
The two were in Israel to visit Judith’s mother and Natalie’s grandmother to celebrate her 85th birthday and Simchat Torah, the Jewish holiday marking the conclusion of the annual cycle of Torah readings. They were staying in Nahal Oz, a kibbutz near the Gaza border.
Zamir said he and his wife, Sigal Zamir, last spoke with Natalie after the bombs started falling.
At the Evanston Chabad where people gathered and lit Shabbat candles Friday night, Rabbi Meir Hecht said the community was “overflowing with gratitude” over Judith and Natalie’s safety.
“We’ve been praying, we’ve been hoping, we have waited for this day,” Meir Hecht said. “And sure enough, today is a most celebratory day, a day that we could have only dreamt of.”
Evanston neighbors of Judith and Natalie Raanan were elated with news of their release.
“Somehow, down deep, I had a feeling that they were okay,” JoAnne Ross, 71, a neighbor of the Raanans, said, tearing up as she spoke. “You know, it was just one of those internal things.”
Ross said they have been neighbors for about two decades, and often used to walk their dogs together. “Our whole building was heartbroken,” Ross said about the moment news of the Raanans’ capture emerged. “We were really, really concerned.”
Ben Raanan told CNN that, according to Uri Raanan, Natalie seemed “composed,” when he spoke with her. While Raanan family members were elated with the news of Natalie and Judith’s release, Ben Raanan said he takes into account the fact that so many other families of hostages being held in Gaza are still undergoing the trauma of not knowing what the fate of their loved ones will be.
“There are people hurting who are hostages who didn’t get the same beautiful news that my family got today,” Ben Raanan said. “And there are families all over in Gaza and in Israel that are experiencing a loss that I can’t even imagine.”