By Jeff Mason
NANTUCKET, Massachusetts (Reuters) – A 4-year-old American girl captured after seeing her parents slain by Hamas fighters who stormed southern Israel from Gaza on Oct. 7 was among 17 hostages released on Sunday as part of an Israeli-Hamas prisoner exchange, President Joe Biden said.
Abigail Edan, who turned four while in captivity, became the third person with U.S. citizenship freed by Hamas during seven weeks of bloodshed between the Iranian-backed Palestinian militia that controls the Gaza Strip and the Israeli military.
Relatives told CBS News last week the toddler, in the event that she were released, would go to stay with family members in Israel who have already taken in her two older siblings.
Abigail, a dual Israeli citizen, was freed as part of a deal to swap 50 hostages held by the Palestinian militant group for 150 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails over a four-day truce period.
It was the first halt in the conflict since Hamas launched its surprise cross-border raid on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages, according to Israeli officials. Hamas characterizes its armed activities as resistance against Israeli occupation.
In response, Israel vowed to destroy the Hamas militants who run Israeli-occupied Gaza, bombarding the crowded coastal enclave and mounting a ground offensive in the north. Palestinian health authorities say Israel has killed some 14,800 people, roughly 40% of them children.
Biden said the toddler had witnessed Hamas fighters killing her parents during the Oct. 7 raid and had been held captive since then.
“What she endured is unthinkable,” the president told a news conference.
“We hoped and prayed today would come,” Liz Hirsh Naftali and Noa Naftali, Edan’s great aunt and cousin, said in a statement, thanking Biden and the Qatari government for their work in getting Abigail released. “There are no words to express our relief and gratitude that Abigail is safe and coming home.”
Biden spoke with members of the girl’s family in the United States and Israel after her release, the White House said in a statement.
FROM CAPTIVITY TO RELATIVES IN ISRAEL
Noa Naftali had said in a CBS News interview last week that if Abigail were released she would go to stay with an aunt, uncle and grandparents living in Israel.
Her siblings were already there, Noa Naftali said, and the family can provide “the love and support that they need after losing their parents.”
Abigail was on her way to a hospital for medical examination, Israel’s Channel 13 reported on Sunday.
Her grandfather, Carmel Edan, told Reuters he “simply could not believe” she had been returned, thanking Biden “for all the help he’s offered us.”
According to Noa Naftali, Abigail had been held captive in Gaza with neighbors also taken from the Kfar Aza kibbutz, where the toddler, her parents and her siblings lived.
Abigail’s mother was killed in front of the girl and her two older siblings, Noa Naftali said, adding that Abigail then ran outside to her father, who picked her up but was “gunned down while holding her.”
Abigail “crawled out from underneath him and went over to the neighbors, who took her in, and they were also taken hostage — a mother, a 10-year-old, an 8-year old and a 4-year old who goes to preschool with Abigail,” Noa Naftali said.
She told CBS that Abigail’s older siblings, aged 6 and 10, escaped by locking themselves inside a closet for 14 hours.
Hamas said it handed over 17 hostages on Sunday, including Abigail and four other foreign nationals, and Israel freed 39 Palestinian prisoners in return.
Two other Americans with dual Israeli citizenship, Judith Tai Raanan, 59, and her daughter Natalie, 17, were freed by Hamas on Oct 20, becoming the first captives whose release by Hamas was confirmed by both sides in the conflict.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a call with Biden on Sunday thanked him for his “tireless efforts to help broker and fully implement” the deal to release hostages, according to a White House readout of the call.
The two leaders agreed to continue working to secure the release of all hostages, the White House said, and would “remain in close contact over the coming days.”
Biden said he expects Hamas to release other U.S. hostages as well, and that he wants the pause in the fighting to be extended as long as prisoners are being released.
“We will not stop working until every hostage is returned to their loved ones,” Biden said.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason in Nantucket; Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan and Moira Warburton in Washington and Jason Lange in Buffalo, NY; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by David Goodman, Alexander Smith, Mark Porter, Josie Kao and Lincoln Feast)