RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel escalated its bombardment of targets in the Gaza Strip, the military said on Tuesday, ahead of an expected ground invasion against Hamas militants that the US fears could spark a wider conflict in the region, including attacks on American troops.
The stepped-up attacks, and the rapidly rising death toll in Gaza, came as Hamas released two elderly Israeli women who were among the hundreds of hostages it captured during its devastating October 7 attack on towns in southern Israel.
Amid a flurry of diplomatic activity in Israel since the war started, French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, meeting with the families of others held hostage in Gaza before heading to talks with top Israeli officials.
Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been running out of food, water and medicine since Israel sealed off the territory following the attack. A third small aid convoy entered Gaza on Monday carrying only a tiny fraction of the cargo aid groups say is necessary.
With Israel still barring the entry of fuel, the United Nations said aid distribution would soon grind to a halt when it can no longer fuel trucks inside Gaza. Hospitals overwhelmed by the wounded are struggling to keep generators running to power lifesaving medical equipment and incubators for premature babies.
The two freed hostages, 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz and 79-year-old Nurit Cooper, were taken out of Gaza at the Rafah crossing into Egypt, where they were put into ambulances, according to footage shown on Egyptian TV. The women, along with their husbands, were snatched from their homes in the kibbutz of Nir Oz near the Gaza border. Their husbands, ages 83 and 84, were not released.
“While I cannot put into words the relief that she is now safe, I will remain focused on securing the release of my father and all those — some 200 innocent people — who remain hostages in Gaza,” Lifshitz’ daughter, Sharone Lifschitz, said in a statement.
The women were freed days after an American woman and her teenage daughter. Hamas and other militants in Gaza are believed to have taken roughly 220 people, including an unconfirmed number of foreigners and dual citizens.
Lifschitz, an artist and academic in London who spells her name differently to her parents, told reporters last week that her parents were peace activists, and her father would drive to the Gaza border to take Palestinians to east Jerusalem for medical treatment.
Kindness, she said last week, could somehow save them.
“I grew up, you know, with all these Holocaust stories about how all my uncles’ lives were saved because” of acts of kindness, she said.
“Do I want that to be the story here?” she asked. “Yeah.”
On Monday, Hamas released a video showing the handover, with militants giving drinks and snacks to the dazed but composed women, and holding their hands as they are walked to Red Cross officials. Just before the video ends, Lifshitz reaches back to shake one militant’s hand.
Around the same time, Israel’s internal security service, Shin Bet, released a recording showing Hamas prisoners — most in clean prison uniforms, but one in a bloody t-shirt and at least one wincing in pain — sitting handcuffed in drab offices talking about the October 7 attack. The men said they were under orders to kill young men, and kidnap women, children and the elderly, and that they’d been promised financial rewards.
The Associated Press could not independently verify either video, and both the hostages and the prisoners could have been acting under duress.
The fighting as killed more than 1,400 people in Israel — mostly civilians slain during the initial Hamas attack.
More than 5,000 Palestinians, including some 2,000 minors and around 1,100 women, have been killed, the Hamas-run Health Ministry said. That includes the disputed toll from an explosion at a hospital last week. The toll has climbed rapidly in recent days, with the ministry reporting 436 additional deaths in just the last 24 hours.
On Tuesday, Israel said it had launched 400 airstrikes over the past day, killing Hamas commanders, hitting militants as they were preparing to launch rockets into Israel and striking command centres and a Hamas tunnel shaft. The previous day, Israel reported 320 strikes. The Palestinian official news agency, WAFA, said many of the airstrikes hit residential buildings, some of them in southern Gaza where Israel had told civilians to take shelter, causing many casualties and trapping people under rubble.
Fifteen members of the same family were among at least 33 Palestinians buried Monday in a shallow, sandy mass grave at a Gaza hospital after being killed in Israeli airstrikes.
Men discussed where to fit the shrouded corpse of a small child.
Israel says it does not target civilians and says Hamas militants are using them as cover for their attacks. Palestinian militants have fired over 7,000 rockets at Israel since the start of the war, Israel said.
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas. Iranian-backed fighters around the region are warning of possible escalation, including the targeting of US forces deployed in the Mideast, if a ground offensive is launched.
The US has told Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon and other groups not to join the fight. Israel and Hezbollah have traded fire almost daily across the Israel-Lebanon border, and Israeli warplanes have struck targets in Syria, Lebanon and the occupied West Bank in recent days.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said there has been an uptick in rocket and drone attacks by Iranian-backed militias on US troops in Iraq and Syria, and the US was “deeply concerned about the possibility for any significant escalation” in the coming days.
He said US officials were having “active conversations” with Israeli counterparts about the potential ramifications of escalated military action.
The US advised Israeli officials that delaying a ground offensive would give Washington more time to work with regional mediators on the release of more hostages, according to a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were authorised to reveal sensitive negotiations.
At least 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza have fled their homes, and nearly 580,000 of them are sheltering in UN-run schools and shelters, the UN said on Monday.
Magdy reported from Cairo and Nessman from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Wafaa Shurafa in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, Aamer Madhani in Washington, Amy Teibel in Jerusalem and Brian Melley in London, contributed to this report.