PALESTINA-ISRAEL - GAZA/JERUSALEM. Israel kept up heavy bombardment of targets throughout Gaza overnight on Saturday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to "fight until victory" following the release of the first two hostages by the enclave's ruling Hamas group.
After Netanyahu signalled no pause in Israel's aerial onslaught and expected ground invasion, its military said fighter jets had struck a "large number of Hamas terror targets throughout the Gaza Strip" including command centres and combat positions inside multi-story buildings.
Palestinian media said Israeli aircraft had struck six homes in the north of Gaza, a coastal enclave that is one of the world's most densely populated places, killing at least 19 people and injuring dozens.
The Israeli military reported a fresh salvo of rockets from Gaza against southern Israeli border communities before dawn, then a lull until sirens sounded in the port city of Ashdod some 40 km (25 miles) north of the Palestinian enclave. There was no immediate word of casualties in either incident.
Hamas on Friday freed Americans Judith Tai Raanan, 59, and her daughter Natalie, 17, who were among around 200 kidnapped in its Oct. 7 cross-border attack on southern Israel by militants of the Islamist movement.
An image obtained by Reuters after their release showed the two women flanked by three Israeli soldiers and holding hands with Gal Hirsch, Israel's coordinator for the captives and missing.
Reached by phone in Bannockburn, Illinois, outside Chicago, Uri Raanan, the teenager's father, said he spoke with his daughter by phone. "She sounds very, very good, very happy - and she looks good."
They were the first hostages confirmed by both sides in the conflict to be freed since Hamas gunmen burst into Israel and killed 1,400 people, mainly civilians, in the deadliest single attack on Israelis since the country's founding 75 years ago.
Gaza's Health Ministry says Israel's retaliatory air and missile strikes have killed at least 4,137 Palestinians, including hundreds of children, while over a million of the besieged territory's 2.3 million people have been displaced.
Israel has amassed tanks and troops near the fenced border around the small coastal enclave for a planned ground invasion with the objective of annihilating Hamas, after several inconclusive wars dating to its 2007 seizure of power in Gaza.
"Two of our abductees are at home. We are not giving up on the effort to return all abducted and missing people," Netanyahu said in a statement released late Friday night.
"At the same time, we'll continue to fight until victory."
Abu Ubaida, a spokesperson for Hamas' armed wing, said the hostages were released in part "for humanitarian reasons" in response to Qatari mediation efforts.
Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said achieving Israel's objectives would not be quick or easy.
"We will topple the Hamas organisation. We will destroy its military and governing infrastructure. It's a phase that will not be easy. It will have a price," Gallant told a parliamentary committee.
He added that the subsequent phase would be more drawn out, but was aimed at achieving "a completely different security situation" with no threat to Israel from Gaza. "It's not a day, it's not a week, and unfortunately it's not a month," he said.
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