Israel has stepped up its shelling of targets in the Gaza Strip, the military said on Tuesday, ahead of an expected ground offensive against Hamas militants that the US fears could spark a wider conflict in the region, including attacks on US troops.
The stepped-up attacks and rapidly rising death toll in Gaza came as Hamas freed two elderly Israeli women who were among hundreds of hostages it took during its devastating Oct. 7 assault on towns in southern Israel.
Amid a flurry of diplomatic activity in Israel since the start of the war, French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, meeting the families of others held hostage in Gaza before holding talks with top Israeli officials.
Gaza's 2.3 million people have run out of food, water and medicine since Israel blockaded the area after the attack. A third small aid convoy entered Gaza on Monday carrying only a small fraction of the cargo aid groups say is essential.
With Israel still barring fuel from entering, the United Nations has said aid distribution will soon stop when it can no longer refuel trucks inside Gaza. Hospitals overwhelmed by the injured are struggling to keep generators running to power life-saving medical equipment and incubators for premature babies.
The two freed hostages, 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz and 79-year-old Nurit Cooper, were taken from Gaza to the Rafah crossing in Egypt, where they were taken to ambulances, according to footage shown on Egyptian television. The women, along with their husbands, were abducted from their homes in the Nir Oz kibbutz near the Gaza border. Their husbands, aged 83 and 84, were not released.
“While I cannot put into words the relief that he 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,” said Lifshitz's daughter Sharone Lifschitz. in a statement.
The women were released days after an American woman and her teenage daughter. Hamas and other militants in Gaza are believed to have captured around 220 people, including an unconfirmed number of foreigners and dual nationals.
Lifschitz, an artist and academic in London who spells her name differently than 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 care.
Kindness, he 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, he said.
“Do I want this story to be here?” asked. “Yes.”
On Monday, Hamas released a video showing the handover, with militants giving drinks and snacks to the dazed but devastated women and holding their hands as they were led to Red Cross officials. Just before the video ends, Lifshitz reaches over to shake a fighter's hand.
Around the same time, Israel's internal security agency Shin Bet released a recording showing Hamas prisoners — most in clean prison uniforms, but one with a bloody T-shirt and at least one writhing in pain — sitting in handcuffs in boring offices and talk about October 7th Attack. The men said they had been ordered to kill young men and kidnap women, children and the elderly and had been promised financial rewards.
The Associated Press was unable to independently verify any of the videos, and both the hostages and the detainees could have been acting under duress.
The fighting has killed more than 1,400 people in Israel – mostly civilians killed in the initial Hamas attack.
More than 5,000 Palestinians, including about 2,000 minors and about 1,100 women, have been killed, Hamas' health ministry said. This includes the disputed account of a hospital explosion last week. The toll has risen rapidly in recent days, with the ministry reporting 436 additional deaths in the past 24 hours alone.
On Tuesday, Israel said it had launched 400 airstrikes in the last day, killing Hamas commanders, hitting militants as they prepared to fire rockets into Israel and hitting command centers and a Hamas tunnel shaft. The day before, Israel reported 320 strikes. The official Palestinian news agency, WAFA, said many of the airstrikes hit residential buildings, some of them in southern Gaza, where Israel had told civilians to flee, 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 in a Gaza hospital after being killed in Israeli airstrikes.
The men discussed where to fit the wrapped corpse of a small child.
Israel says it does not target civilians and says Hamas fighters use them as cover for their attacks. Palestinian militants have fired more than 7,000 rockets into Israel since the start of the war, Israel said.
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas. Iranian-backed militants around the region are warning of possible escalation, including targeting US forces deployed in the Middle East, if a ground offensive is launched.
The US has told Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon and other groups not to join the fight. Israel and Hezbollah exchange fire almost daily on the Israel-Lebanese 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 had been an increase 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 of a significant escalation” in the coming months. days.
He said US officials were in “active discussions” with their Israeli counterparts about the possible consequences of escalating military action.
The US has told Israeli officials that delaying a ground attack would give Washington more time to work with regional mediators to free more hostages, according to a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were authorized to disclose 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.
Find more of AP's coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war