Hostages are in a desperate race against time as negotiators work to get them out ahead of the Israeli onslaught on Gaza.
After an American mother and daughter were released on Friday, a deal to free 50 more captives reportedly collapsed last night.
With 201 prisoners, including seven Britons, still being held, back-channel talks are going on around the clock before Israel’s military descends to ‘annihilate’ Hamas in a full-scale invasion.
Tearful families spoke of their anguish last night, as the US, UK and other governments were said to have been piling pressure on Israel to delay its air, sea and land assault to give deal-makers more time. Israeli tanks are in full readiness along the border.
In Cairo yesterday, Britain’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly called for ‘discipline and professionalism and restraint’ from the Israeli military, while accepting the country’s right to self-defence after the massacres of October 7.
READY TO ATTACK: The Israeli army gathers on the border with Gaza
BLOODIED: An injured Palestinian boy after an air strike on the Gazan city of Deir al-Balah yesterday
British hostage negotiators are understood to have been lined up to help forge an agreement with Hamas to release UK citizens.
Among the British captives are Nadav Popplewell, 51, from Wakefield, who was marched away with his 79-year-old mother Channah Peri. The terrorists taunted Nadav’s sister Ayelet Svatitzky by sending her selfies from her mother’s phone with the caption ‘Hamas’.
Last night Ms Svatitzky, who lives in northern Israel, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘I trust the British Government to do whatever they can to rescue the hostages. But I also accept that I don’t have any control over when the troops go in – I will just pray for the safe return of my mum and my brother.’
I have to hope that he is alive and being strong
She also spoke of her health fears for the pair, now presumed to be held in a booby-trapped Hamas bunker: ‘My mother is a very elderly lady with diabetes who needs insulin and recently lost sight in her eye.’
Yesterday, the father of kidnapped American Natalie Shoshana Raanan, 17, told reporters she was ‘doing very good’ after being released with her mother Judith Tai Raanan, 59. Uri Raanan, 71, said: ‘I’m going to hug her and kiss her, and it’s going to be the best day of my life.’
The Raanans were taken to an Israeli military base where family members were waiting, and spoke to President Joe Biden by phone.
It is believed they were given medical checks before a debrief with FBI and Israeli intelligence experts. The two women may hold ‘crucial operational intelligence,’ said a former western security official. ‘This is information, no matter how small, that cannot wait, that is essential to the immediate situation and needs to be gathered now. The initial debrief may be over two days.
‘[The debriefers] will want to know anything that can be revealed about the state and whereabouts of the other hostages, confirmation of who is being held together. The women may recall sounds of what was going on outside where they were held, who is in charge of the unit they were being held by.’ The source added that it is possible MI6 and the CIA may also be involved.
DESPERATE: With 201 prisoners, including seven Britons, still being held, back-channel talks are going on around the clock before Israel’s military descends to ‘annihilate’ Hamas in a full-scale invasion
RUIN: Tearful families spoke of their anguish last night, as the US, UK and other governments were said to have been piling pressure on Israel to delay its air, sea and land assault to give deal-makers more time. Israeli tanks are in full readiness along the border
In a statement on Friday, Hamas said it was working with mediators in Egypt, Qatar and other ‘friendly countries’ to release more hostages ‘as and when security circumstances permit’. But a deal involving the US, Israel and Qatar that would have led to the release of 50 hostages fell through, the Wall Street Journal reported.
‘Hostages are being kept to act as human shields
Informed sources told the newspaper that, for the first week of the conflict, Hamas leaders had refused any conversation about the hostages. Extraordinarily, they weren’t even sure where all the kidnapped people were, because some had been snatched by ordinary Palestinians who burst through the border fence during the terror attacks.
It is feared many hostages are being kept to act as ‘human shields’ in the expected invasion. Families of the captives desperately pleaded with the Israelis for more time to free them before it begins.
Rachel Goldberg, 54, the mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23, a festival-goer last seen being loaded onto a truck by terrorists, told the MoS yesterday: ‘Obviously if your child is sitting in the street and you see a truck coming, it’s natural to say ‘please pump the brakes’.’
She said: ‘Obviously we are beyond thrilled for the Raanan family. As soon as we heard they were finally getting good news, we were in tears of joy for them.
‘We are still in the realm of complete unknown for Hersh. What we pieced together from people who were with him is that he was in hiding and Hamas threw in hand grenades. We know his left arm was blown off at the elbow, and he was put on a Hamas pick-up truck.
‘Hearing that about your child, it’s primal terror. He might have bled out from his wound, or he might be alive in Gaza now in terrible pain without the medical care he needs.
‘I have to keep the mother’s hope that he is alive and being strong and surviving.’
Aid arrives amid chaos at border
There was chaos at the crossing between Gaza and Egypt yesterday as vital aid was finally allowed in but foreign passport holders were blocked from getting out.
Hundreds of expats were denied exit from the besieged enclave, but the Rafah border crossing was opened to aid, with 20 lorries bringing a lifeline to Gazan civilians caught in the conflict between Israel and the Hamas terror group that runs Gaza.
The aid convoy was the first to enter since chaos erupted two weeks ago. But while the lorries brought 3,000 tons of food and medicines, the Palestinian authorities said this amounted to only three per cent of the supplies needed every day.
Gaza’s 2.3 million inhabitants are rationing food and drinking dirty water. And hospitals say they are running low on medical supplies and fuel for emergency generators amid a territory-wide power blackout.