How Two American Hostages Were Set Free From Gaza

On Oct. 7, a few hours after Hamas began its devastating attack on Israel, Antony J. Blinken, the American secretary of state, spoke by telephone with Qatar’s prime minister.

Hamas gunmen had just slaughtered more than 1,400 people and kidnapped more than 200, including Americans, and Mr. Blinken raised the issue of the hostages with the prime minister, according to two senior State Department officials. The hope among many diplomats was that Qatar could play the middleman. That’s exactly what it did.

Over nearly the next two weeks, Mr. Blinken and other U.S. officials, their Qatari counterparts and representatives from Turkey, Egypt, France and many other countries held delicate talks about how to get the captives out — or least start the process. Qatar, a tiny country on the Persian Gulf, played an outsized role. It’s an American ally with open lines to Hamas — many of Hamas’s political leaders reside at least part-time in Doha, Qatar’s capital — and it has a long history of brokering deals with groups that the United States considers terrorists.

On Friday night, when Hamas released two captives, Judith and Natalie Raanan, an American-Israeli mother and daughter, one of the first things American officials did was thank the Qataris. The Raanans were the first hostages to emerge from captivity, and the families of the remaining 200 or more captives desperately hope this is just the beginning.

For two weeks, the families have been stuck in a state of suspended shock, not knowing if the people closest to them in the world are alive. Intelligence experts say Hamas has likely split up the hostages into small groups, separating the Israeli soldiers they captured from the civilians, who span ages from less than 1 year old to more than 85. Hamas is believed to be holding the captives in a maze of tunnels beneath Gaza’s streets as Israeli warplanes bomb the enclave.

In Tel Aviv on Friday, a Shabbat meal was set with 203 empty chairs, one for each hostage believed to be held in Gaza.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

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