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Diplomatic efforts are underway to facilitate the release of more hostages in Gaza

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Some much needed good news this morning out of the Israel-Gaza conflict - two elderly women abducted by the militant group Hamas in the cross-border attack on Israel nearly two weeks ago were released. They are 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz and 79-year-old Nurit Cooper. Jackie Northam is in Jerusalem. Jackie, tell us what you know about the hostages that were released.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Well, the release was brokered by Egypt and Qatar after long negotiations. And one of the women, 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz, described her ordeal afterwards at a Tel Aviv hospital. She spoke through a translator.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOCHEVED LIFSHITZ: (Through interpreter) It was very, very difficult and unpleasant. In the memory, I see the images.

NORTHAM: Lifshitz said she went through what she called a nightmare that she couldn't have imagined. After Hamas militants grabbed her during the attack on the kibbutz, they put her on a motorcycle and took off over fields. Her legs were tied and she said she was hit with a wooden pole. Lifshitz says they ended up in one of these Hamas underground tunnels, and they walked for two or three hours through this labyrinth of tunnels before they met up with other hostages. And considering the circumstances, Lifshitz was almost charitable about her captives. She said they - captors, pardon me. She said they ate meals together. They didn't talk about politics. They were visited every day by a doctor and brought medications if needed until they were released.

And interestingly, there's a video of the release of the two women. And in it, Lifshitz takes the hand of a Hamas militant and says, shalom, peace. But, you know, A, you can't forget that there are about 220 other hostages - Israelis, but other foreign nationals, including 10 Americans - that are still being held. And the Biden administration says it's working around the clock to get Americans out of Gaza.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow, what a story from her. I'm glad to know that she...

NORTHAM: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: ...Got out OK - well, as OK as possible. Three weeks into this conflict now, and from the very beginning, Israel has said that they want to root out, uproot Hamas from Gaza. Hasn't happened yet. Probably can't happen unless they go - walk in. Any sign that that might happen soon?

NORTHAM: Well, Israel's military seems to be poised to go in. You know, it's got troops and tanks along the border with Gaza. But nothing has happened. Certainly the hostage situation complicates things. You know, it takes time to negotiate the release of these people. Israel also wants time to take out as much of Hamas' underground tunnel system as possible. And to that end, Israel has been pounding Gaza with airstrikes - 400 airstrikes just overnight. About 5,800 Palestinian civilians have been killed so far, and many of them children, and more than a million people displaced.

But, you know, A, the other factor delaying an incursion are splits within the government about when to go in. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been Israel's longest-serving leader, but he's never initiated an act of war. But he has hard-line right members in his government who are pushing him now to go in. I think the other final factor is the U.S. and other allies are urging Israel to go slow.

MARTÍNEZ: And why are they urging them to go slow? What are their concerns?

NORTHAM: Well, the concern is that Israel doesn't have a well-thought-out strategy. You know, this is going to involve urban warfare. Hamas has these underground network of tunnels, which is where they operate from. The U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has been in regular contact with his counterparts here, sharing with them the experiences and the challenge that the U.S. went through conducting urban warfare in Iraq. The thing is, they want them to really think hard before going in what the endgame is in Gaza.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Jackie Northam in Jerusalem. Jackie, thank you.

NORTHAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.