EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — The father of freed American teen hostage Natalie Raanan said Friday she’s doing well following two weeks in captivity after she and her mother were abducted in Israel by Hamas and held in Gaza.
Uri Raanan of Illinois told The Associated Press that he spoke to his daughter Friday by telephone. “She’s doing good. She’s doing very good,” said Uri Raanan, who lives in the Chicago suburbs. “I’m in tears, and I feel very, very good.”
The 71-year-old said he saw on the news earlier Friday that an American mother and daughter would be released by Hamas, and he spent the day hoping that meant his daughter and her mother, Judith Raanan.
Knowing Natalie may be able to celebrate her 18th birthday next week at home with family and friends feels “wonderful. The best news,” her father said.
Ben Raanan, Natalie’s brother, said before her abduction he and his sister had spoken of getting matching tattoos to mark her birthday. Instead, he got a tattoo this week in her honor, incorporating their names along with their brother’s name.
The family’s text message chain sharing updates on Friday moved from tentative hope to outright celebration, tempered by an awareness than other families still are living in fear for their loved ones, Ben Raanan told The Associated Press at his home in Denver.
“When I see her again, I think there aren’t going to be words to express what’s going on,” he said. “It’s just going to be like this intense hug that is bigger than words and bigger than what we could actually communicate verbally.”
Uri Raanan said he believes Natalie and Judith to be in transit to Tel Aviv to reunite with relatives, and that both will be back in the U.S. early next week.
An Israeli army spokesperson said the two Americans were out of the Gaza Strip and with the Israeli military. Hamas said Friday it released them for humanitarian reasons in an agreement with the Qatari government.
They were the first hostages to be released since Hamas militants, according to Israel, abducted roughly 200 people during their Oct. 7 rampage.
President Joe Biden was among the many celebrating the news that the Raanans had been freed.
“I am overjoyed that they will soon be reunited with their family, who has been wracked with fear,” Biden said in Washington. The president spoke Friday with Judith and Natalie and “relayed that they will have the full support of the U.S. government as they recover from this terrible ordeal,” the White House said.
In the telephone conversation, Biden told the women that he was “glad you’re out.”
“We’re going to get them all out, God willing,” he said of the remaining hostages in a video showing excerpts of the conversation that was posted by the White House Saturday on the X platform, formerly known as Twitter.
“I just wanted to say thank you for your services to Israel,” Natalie told the president. Judith told him they were in good health.
Uri Raanan said late Friday in a short news conference that he spoke with his daughter for only a few emotional minutes and that they didn’t talk about what she and her mother experienced in the past two weeks. He said Judith has a minor injury he described as a “little scratch” on her hand.
“They look good and sound good,” he said, adding that when he sees his daughter he plans to hug her and kiss her. “It’s going to be the best day of my life.”
He also said he didn’t know why they were chosen for release.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which transported the freed Americans from Gaza to Israel, said their release offered “a sliver of hope” for those still being held.
Judith, 59, and Natalie, who both have dual Israeli-American citizenship, had been on a trip from their home in the Chicago suburb of Evanston to Israel to celebrate Judith’s mother’s birthday and the Jewish holidays, family members said.
Natalie was born in the U.S., moved to Israel with Judith until she was around 10 and then returned, her father said.
Natalie “always spoke of her home very dearly,” 19-year-old stepsister Frida Alonso said, referring to Israel. “She missed it very, very dearly. Every day she missed her grandma, she missed her home. Just the feeling of being there. So I bet this hurts a lot for her.”
Mother and daughter were in Nahal Oz, near the Gaza border, on Oct. 7 when Hamas militants stormed into southern Israeli towns, killing hundreds of people and abducting others.
Their family had heard nothing from them since the attack and were later told by U.S. and Israeli officials that they were being held in Gaza, Natalie’s brother has said.
“The news that Judith and Natalie have been released from the hands of Hamas is overwhelming. It brings us a tremendous amount of gratitude to the Almighty, to God, for this incredible miracle,” Meir Hecht, Judith’s rabbi, said at a news conference outside his home in Evanston on Friday afternoon.
“At the same time we hold our pain very deep,” said Hecht, who called for the other hostages to be released as soon as possible. “We need to continue besieging whoever we can and however we can, and praying for their release.”
Judith came regularly to Meir’s congregation and felt like “part of our family,” the rabbi said.
Qatar said it would continue its dialogue with Israel and Hamas in hopes of winning the release of all hostages “with the ultimate aim of de-escalating the current crisis and restoring peace.”
Israeli military spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Israel was continuing to work to return hostages and find the missing, and its goals had not changed. “We are continuing the war against Hamas and ready for the next stage of the war,” he said.
The release comes amid growing expectations of a ground offensive that Israel says is aimed at rooting out Hamas militants who rule Gaza.
Associated Press reporter Thomas Peipert reported from Denver. Perez Winder reported from Evanston, Savage reported from Chicago and Baumann from Bellingham, Washington.