Avigail Idan, age four, has her curly hair pulled back in a ponytail, a huge smile on her face and wide eyes of joy in the photographs that have been distributed of her after her return home. The little girl watched her parents die at the hands of Hamas on October 7 before being taken hostage by the Palestinian militia. She is the only American-born captive released so far in the Hamas-Israel prisoner exchange pact brokered by Qatar, Egypt, and the United States. And she has also been the main source of inspiration for U.S. President Joe Biden in his pressure on the Israeli government to agree to a four-day cease-fire — which has now been extended for two further days — that would allow for the release of hostages and for humanitarian aid to be sent to Gaza.
An emotional Biden said at the end of a press appearance on Sunday in Nantucket (Massachusetts), where he was spending the Thanksgiving holiday: “Thank God she’s home. I wish I were there to hold her.”
Avigail (whose name part of the U.S. media has spelled as Abigail) had turned four years old just two days earlier, on November 24, while still under Hamas captivity. During the October 7 attacks on Israel, which left more than 1,200 people dead, Hamas militiamen carried out a massacre at Kfar Aza, the kibbutz where the young girl and her family lived.
Avigail’s mother “was killed in front of her,” Biden said. The father tried to protect his daughter and stood between her and the militiamen; he was also shot and killed. Terrified, the little girl ran to seek help from neighbors, but was captured along with several others. She had been held in Gaza for 50 days. “What she endured is unthinkable,” Biden said in his address.
In a statement Sunday, Liz Hirsh Naftali and Noa Naftali, relatives of the girl, expressed their gratitude to the U.S. government, Qatar, and other “informal participants” who worked to secure the girl’s release. “Her return shows that it is possible. We can get all the hostages home, we need to keep pushing.”
The White House believes that eight or nine U.S. citizens — out of a total of 180 international hostages in Gaza — still remain in the hands of Hamas and other Palestinian militia groups. Avigail was known to be held in the north of the Strip, along with other residents of her kibbutz. But details of the whereabouts of the other American hostages are less precise. None of them are among the captives released so far.
At the daily press briefing from the presidential office on Monday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby acknowledged that “we don’t necessarily have firm, solid information on each and every one of them.”
Biden’s personal interest in Avigail
Biden had taken an interest in Avigail’s situation since the hostage crisis began. In talks with the Qatari and Egyptian negotiators, U.S. representatives repeatedly insisted that the child had to be included in the first groups of released captives. This demand was multiplied when Hamas handed over the first two American hostages, Natalie and Judith Raanan, last month. The president himself brought up the case in his various calls to regional leaders, part of his effort to push through the deal, free the hostages and get more humanitarian aid into Gaza. In his many public statements on the Israel-Hamas war, he also frequently mentioned the girl.
When Hamas confirmed that she would be in the next group of released hostages, U.S. officials monitored her handover to the International Committee of the Red Cross and from there to the Israeli authorities. In this case, the convoy in which Avigail was traveling did not leave the Strip through the Rafah crossing into Egypt, but directly into Israel: one of the released captives, Elma Avraham, 85, was in a very serious condition and required immediate evacuation.
Biden was kept constantly informed of the progress of the operation. His appearance before the media on Sunday was delayed until he had confirmed that the girl was safely in the hands of Israeli authorities. Once it had been confirmed that the handover had been successfully completed, the U.S. president spoke personally with the family members who are now taking care of the little girl.
“I spoke with Avigail’s family following her release, and we are working closely with our Israeli partners to ensure she gets the care and support she needs as she begins to recover from this unspeakable trauma,” the president said in a statement Monday, in which he welcomed the two-day extension ceasefire in Gaza that will allow for the release of another 20 hostages and a further 60 Palestinian prisoners, while the pause in bombing allows more humanitarian aid into the Strip.
“I want to again thank Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel, Amir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani of Qatar, and President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi of Egypt for their commitment to this process and in reaching the agreement for an extension over the next 48 hours. We will not stop until all of the hostages held by Hamas terrorists are released,” Biden concluded.
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