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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Last Pinoy hostage in Gaza freed; Marcos, Speaker thank allies

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President Marcos on Wednesday announced that the last Filipino hostage in the Gaza Strip had been freed by the Palestinian group Hamas and had safely returned to Israel.

“Just days after expressing concern for Noralyn Babadilla’s whereabouts, I am very happy to announce that Noralyn is safely back in Israel, becoming the second Filipino released from Gaza,” President Marcos said on his official X social media account.

“With this favorable development, I am happy to inform the public that all Filipinos affected by the war have been located,” the President said.

Mr. Marcos said he instructed the Philippine Embassy officials in Tel Aviv to attend to the needs of Babadilla in coordination with the Israeli government.

The President also extended his gratitude to Israeli authorities for facilitating the release of Babadilla and for all extending assistance to Filipinos in Israel.

President Marcos also thanked the governments of Egypt and the State of Qatar “for their vital role in this process over the past few weeks.”

Babadilla’s release from the hands of Hamas came shortly after President Marcos confirmed the liberation of Filipino national Gelienor “Jimmy” Pacheco by Hamas.

Babadilla and Pacheco are among the Filipino nationals who were taken hostage by the Palestinian militant group during their surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians. Hamas also took about 240 hostages to Gaza.

Speaker Ferdinand Martin G. Romualdez said Babadilla’s release “means the government is doing its best to rescue any OFW from harm’s way.”

“Our goal is for them to be safe and, if possible, to be reunited with their families back home,” Romualdez said.

The Israeli government welcomed the release of Babadilla, the last Filipino left unaccounted for following the Oct. 7 assault on Israel.

“The Israeli Embassy in Manila expresses great relief upon the release of Ms. Noralin ‘Nataly’ Babadilla from captivity by Hamas after 53 days,” the Israel Embassy in Manila said Wednesday.

Babadilla is undergoing medical evaluation at Tel HaShomer Hospital in Israel, the embassy added.

The embassy said Babadilla and her partner, Gideon Babani, were visiting close friends in Kibbutz Nirim at the time of the attack.

Babani was murdered and Babadilla was taken captive into Gaza.

“Our thoughts and prayers remain for the safe release of the 150+ hostages, including nine children, still held in captivity by the terror organization Hamas,” the embassy said.

Babadilla will receive support from the Israeli government as given to all “victims of terror,” the embassy said.

Israeli tribute

The Israeli government on Tuesday paid tribute to the four Filipinos killed in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and promised lifetime aid to their bereaved families.

In a press conference in Taguig City, Israel Ambassador to the Philippines Ilan Fluss said Israel will be providing a base of P100,000 monthly aid to the victim’s immediate family.

Fluss said the amount would still “depend on the status” of the family, whether the recipient is the parent or the spouse, while also taking into consideration the number of children.

“But I could tell you this is more than P100,000 a month and that’s the baseline — for life,” he said.

“Israeli law understands that here the family has to continue to survive, and this is why we need to continue to assist,” he added.

The envoy noted that recently released caregiver Jimmy Pacheco could also qualify for a “monthly aid” following his 49-day captivity.

The Embassy held a Mass for Angelyn Aguirre, Loreta Alacre, Grace Cabrera, and Paul Castelvi, the four Filipinos killed when Hamas mounted a cross-border attack in Israel.

Also commemorating their lives were officials from the Philippine government, including Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Eduardo Jose De Vega, Migrant Workers Undersecretary Patricia Yvonna Caunan, and Overseas Workers Welfare Administration Administrator Arnell Ignacio.

Erlinda Aguirre, mother of Angelyn, said she sorely misses her daughter whom she called her “source of strength.”

“Until now I still cannot believe I lost my precious daughter. The pain is unbearable, why must this tragedy happen to her?” she said in an emotional speech.

“It is difficult for a mother to continue living without the presence of her daughter,” she added.

Angenica, Aguirre’s sister and a survivor of the Oct. 7 attack, narrated that she still remembers their last online conversation.

“She was telling all of us that she was scared,” she said.

“We were talking over chat messaging, and she said she’s scared. Both of us were scared. I told her to pray, and everything would be fine,” she recalled in Filipino.

When Angenica tried to reach her again, there was no longer a response.

Aguirre was a newlywed nurse from Pangasinan who, despite a chance to flee her attackers, remained by her elderly ward Nira’s side, resulting in both being murdered.

Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, in confirming her death last month, praised Aguirre for her “unbelievable humanity and loyalty.”

Her husband, Nicolas, said he is still in disbelief over his wife’s death.

“I’d like to think that she’s just in a distant place, that we’re still in a long-distance relationship. But thoughts of her wake me up and I just cry,” he said.

“I am proud of her but what happened to her really broke us because she was caught in the conflict in Israel. It was extremely painful. I hope the war ends because the longer it lasts, the more people suffer the same way we do,” he added.

A humanitarian pause started on Friday and will go on for the next two days, allowing the delivery of humanitarian assistance into and across Gaza and the exchange of Hamas hostage victims and Palestinian prisoners.

A truce between Israel and Hamas entered its sixth day Wednesday after additional hostages were released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, with mediators pushing for a “sustainable” ceasefire.

After a 48-hour extension of an initial four-day truce, a new group of 12 hostages was freed from Gaza on Tuesday, with 30 Palestinians released by Israel.

The final 24 hours of the extended agreement begins later Wednesday, with one more exchange of hostages for prisoners expected, but mediator Qatar said it was hoping for a more durable arrangement.

“Our main focus right now, and our hope, is to reach a sustainable truce that will lead to further negotiations and eventually to an end… to this war,” foreign ministry spokesman Majed Al Ansari told a Doha news conference.

“However, we are working with what we have. And what we have right now is the provision to the agreement that allows us to extend days as long as Hamas is able to guarantee the release of at least 10 hostages.”

That provision has allowed the two-day extension that saw 10 Israeli hostages released from Gaza overnight Tuesday, along with two Thais freed outside the scope of the agreement.

The Israeli hostages freed were all women, including 17-year-old Mia Leimberg, who returned to Israel with her mother and aunt.

The three were all abducted from kibbutz Nir Yitzhak, and the teenager was seen after her release holding her dog Bella.

There have been few direct accounts so far of the conditions faced by hostages, but the grandmother of 12-year-old Eitan Yahalomi, who was released on Monday, said the boy had been held in solitary confinement for 16 days.

“The days that he was alone were horrible,” Esther Yaeli told Israeli news website Walla. “Now Eitan appears very withdrawn.”

‘High risk of famine’

Israel’s government has received a list of the new hostages to be freed Wednesday, local media reported. There was no official confirmation.

So far, 60 Israeli hostages have been freed from Gaza under the terms of the deal, with a Russian-Israeli, 20 Thais and one Filipino freed outside the scope of the agreement.

In return, 180 Palestinian prisoners — all women and minors – have been released.

Among them was 14-year-old Ahmad Salaima who returned to his home in east Jerusalem to cheers and hugs from relatives.

“When Ahmed was in prison, we couldn’t visit him, even though he’s the youngest Palestinian prisoner at just 14 years old,” his father Nayef said.

The truce agreement has brought a temporary halt to fighting sparked by Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, which killed 1,200 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to Israeli officials.

Israel’s subsequent aerial and land campaign in Gaza has killed nearly 15,000 people, according to Hamas officials, and rendered large parts of the territory’s north uninhabitable.

The World Food Program warned Tuesday that Gaza’s population faced a “high risk of famine if WFP is not able to provide continued access to food.”

Conditions in the territory are “catastrophic,” the agency’s Middle East director said, while a spokesman for the UN children’s agency UNICEF said aid entering Gaza under the truce deal was “not even enough for triage.” With Rey Requejo and AFP

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