President Biden on Sunday hailed the release of Avigail Idan, who turned 4 years old during her seven weeks in Hamas captivity and was the first American citizen to be freed by the group. The president vowed to keep working to secure freedom for others in captivity and extend the pause in the fighting.
“Thank God she’s home,” Mr. Biden told reporters in Nantucket, Mass., where he has been celebrating Thanksgiving. “I wish I was there to hold her.”
Avigail, whose name has been rendered as Abigail in American media, is a dual U.S. and Israeli citizen and was seized on Oct. 7 after Hamas fighters killed her parents. She was among the 17 people held captive who were turned over on Sunday as part of a temporary cease-fire deal.
Her case became the focus of widespread international attention and concern as she turned 4 on Friday. Mr. Biden said Avigail’s mother was killed in front of her when Hamas fighters stormed their kibbutz. The child then ran to her father, who was shot and killed while using his body to shield her, and she then ran to neighbors for help, Mr. Biden said. The family disappeared and Avigail was taken hostage.
“What she endured is unthinkable,” Mr. Biden said. He added that he did not have any immediate information about her condition but said that she was “safely in Israel.”
Liz Hirsh Naftali and Noa Naftali, Avigail’s great-aunt and cousin, said in a statement on Sunday that “there are no words to express our relief and gratitude” to the United States, Qatari government and other “informal actors” who worked to secure the release of hostages.
“Today’s release proves that it’s possible,” they wrote. “We can get all the hostages back home. We have to keep pushing.”
About 10 American citizens were unaccounted for and believed to be in Hamas captivity. Asked Sunday about the other American hostages, Mr. Biden said he was hopeful for their release but did not have concrete news about them.
Israel and Hamas are halfway through a four-day pause in a war that began after Hamas assailants massacred about 1,200 people in Israel on Oct. 7, including in their homes and at a music festival, and kidnapped about 240 people. Among those reported killed were 36 Americans.
Under the agreement, Hamas is expected to return 50 hostages during the temporary cease-fire. Israel will release 150 Palestinian prisoners, many of whom were detained for violent crimes.
Mr. Biden said the truce, which the United States helped broker with Qatar and Egypt, was not only resulting in the release of hostages but also the provision of more aid to civilians in Gaza, with 200 trucks of food, water, medicine, fuel and cooking gas arriving each day.
He said he hoped to extend the original deal so more captives could be freed and the hold on fighting could continue. The Israeli government has said it will extend the pause one day for every additional 10 hostages freed.
Mr. Biden said he would continue to work with the leaders of Israel, Egypt and Qatar “to do everything possible” to free the other hostages held by Hamas. He is scheduled to speak with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Sunday, White House officials said.
“More is needed, but this deal is delivering lifesaving results,” Mr. Biden said. “Critical aid is going in and hostages are coming out. This deal is structured so that it can be extended to keep building on these results. That’s my goal, that’s our goal, to keep this pause going beyond tomorrow so that we can continue to see more hostages come out and surge more humanitarian relief to those in need in Gaza.”
Earlier in the day Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, sidestepped questions about whether the president would impose conditions to future aid to Israel, including a freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. But he said Mr. Biden was working toward a peace plan that includes a two-state solution.
“We believe that this is absolutely a moment for us to be working with everyone in the region,” Mr. Sullivan said. “We do think this is a moment for that kind of diplomacy.”
Mr. Biden called the diplomatic efforts a “day-by-day approach” but said “the proof that this is working, and worth pursuing further, is in every smile and grateful tear we see on the faces of those families that are finally getting back together again. The proof is little Abigail.”