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Hamas releases two Israeli women as US advises delay in ground war to allow negotiations over captives


NEW YORK — Hamas released two elderly Israeli women held hostage in Gaza on Monday, as the United States expressed growing concern that the escalation of the war between Israel and Hamas would spark a wider conflict in the region, including attacks on American troops.

The death toll in Gaza rose rapidly as Israel intensified its airstrikes, destroying residential buildings in what it says was preparation for a possible ground attack. The United States has advised Israel to delay a planned ground invasion to allow time to negotiate the release of more hostages.

A third small humanitarian convoy from Egypt entered Gaza, where the population of 2.3 million has lacked food, water and medicine under Israeli rule for two weeks. While Israel still prohibits the entry of fuel, the UN has said its aid distribution will stop within days when it can no longer refuel its trucks. Gaza hospitals are struggling to run generators to power vital medical equipment and incubators for premature babies.

The release of the two hostages, Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, and Nurit Cooper, 79, was confirmed by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The two women, along with their husbands, were taken from their homes in Kibbutz Nir Oz, near the border with Gaza, during Hamas’ October 7 rampage through southern Israeli towns. Their husbands were not released.

Nurit Cooper (left) and Yocheved Lifshitz (right) are seen in these undated images. On October 23, 2023, the Israeli Hostage Center announced that the two hostages had been released by Hamas.

In a statement, Hamas said it had released them for humanitarian reasons. Hamas and other militants in Gaza reportedly took around 220 people, including an unconfirmed number of foreigners and dual nationals. Hamas released an American woman and her teenage daughter last week.

Israel is widely expected to launch a ground offensive in Gaza, vowing to destroy Hamas after its brutal October 7 rampage in southern Israeli communities. That raises fears of an expansion of the war beyond Gaza and Israel, as Iran-backed fighters in the region warn of possible escalation, including targeting U.S. forces deployed in the Middle East.

The United States has asked Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon and other groups not to join the fight. Israel has frequently exchanged fire with Hezbollah, and Israeli warplanes have struck targets in the occupied West Bank, Syria and Lebanon in recent days.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said there has been an increase in rocket and drone attacks by Iranian-backed militias against U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria, and that the United States was “deeply concerned about the possibility of a significant escalation” of attacks in the coming days. .

He said U.S. officials were having “active conversations” with their Israeli counterparts about the potential consequences of escalating military action.

The United States informed Israeli officials that delaying a ground offensive would give Washington more time to work with regional mediators to secure the release of additional hostages taken by Hamas, according to a U.S. official.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant urged troops near Gaza to continue preparing for an offensive “because it is coming.” He said it would be a combined air, land and sea offensive, but did not give a timetable.

Tanks and troops have been massed on the Gaza border, and Israel says it has stepped up airstrikes to reduce the risk to troops in the coming stages. A land excursion is likely to significantly increase the number of casualties in what is already by far the deadliest of the five wars fought between Israel and Hamas since the militant seized power in Gaza in 2007.

More than 1,400 people have been killed in Israel – most of them civilians killed in the initial Hamas attack. At least 222 people were captured and returned to Gaza, including foreigners, the army announced Monday, updating a previous figure.

More than 5,000 Palestinians, including some 2,000 minors and around 1,100 women, were killed, the Hamas-run Health Ministry said Monday. This includes the controversial death toll from a hospital explosion last week. The toll has risen rapidly in recent days, with the ministry reporting 436 additional deaths in the last 24 hours alone.

Israel said it struck 320 militant targets across Gaza in the past 24 hours. The army says it does not target civilians and that Palestinian militants have fired more than 7,000 rockets into Israel since the war began.

The Israeli military has released footage showing what it says are attacks on Hamas infrastructure, with explosions as multi-story buildings collapsed or toppled.

Israel has carried out limited ground incursions into Gaza. On Sunday, Hamas said it had destroyed an Israeli tank and two armored bulldozers inside Gaza. The Israeli military said one soldier was killed and three others injured by an anti-tank missile during a raid inside Gaza.

The military said the raid was part of efforts to free the hostages. Hamas hopes to exchange the captives for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

On Monday, the Palestinian Red Crescent said 20 trucks entered Gaza carrying food, water, medicine and medical supplies, via the Rafah crossing with Egypt, the only access route to Gaza not controlled by Israel. It was the third delivery in as many days, each one being roughly the same size.

The aid received so far is “a drop in the ocean” compared to the needs of the population, said Thomas White, director in Gaza of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, the UNRWA. The UN said that 20 trucks represented 4% of average daily imports before the war and that hundreds of trucks per day were needed.

White said the agency only has three days of fuel left for its trucks. Supplies transiting through Rafah are reloaded onto UNRWA and Red Crescent trucks for transport to UN hospitals and schools in southern Gaza, where hundreds of thousands of people are sheltering, lacking food and drinking largely contaminated water.

An airstrike hit a residential building about 200 meters from the UN headquarters in Rafah on Monday, killing and injuring several people, according to an Associated Press journalist at the scene, highlighting the perils of humanitarian operations.

After a day of intense strikes, the Abou Youssef Al-Najjar hospital in Rafah has recorded 61 deaths since Monday morning, its spokesperson said. Due to a lack of space in the morgue, more than half of the bodies were lying within the hospital grounds, spokesperson Talaat Barghout said.

At least 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza have fled their homes and nearly 580,000 of them have taken refuge in schools and UN-run shelters, the UN said on Monday.

No aid will be distributed in Gaza City and other areas in the north, where hundreds of thousands of people remain. Gaza City’s main al-Shifa hospital, with a normal capacity of 700 patients, is currently overwhelmed by 5,000 patients, and around 45,000 displaced people are gathered in and around its grounds for shelter, the agency said. ‘UN.

“The north has received nothing” from the incoming aid, said Mahmoud Shalabi, an aid worker with the aid group Medical Aid for Palestinians based in the northern town of Beit Lahia. “It’s like a death sentence for the residents of northern Gaza.”


Magdy reported from Cairo and Krauss from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Wafaa Shurafa in Deir al-Balah, Gaza, Aamer Madhani in Washington, Amy Teibel in Jerusalem, Brian Melley in London, contributed to this report.



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