Â© An Israeli flag flutters from a self-propelled howitzer near Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, in southern Israel, October 22, 2023. REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Matt Spetalnick
GAZA/WASHINGTON () -Hamas on Monday said it had freed two Israeli women who were among the more than 200 hostages taken during its Oct. 7 rampage in southern Israel while sources said the U.S. had advised Israel to hold off on a ground assault in the Gaza Strip.
“We decided to release them for humanitarian and poor health grounds,” Abu Ubaida, spokesman for the armed wing of the Palestinian Hamas militant group, said on Telegram.
The Israeli prime minister’s office issued a statement confirming that the women, whom it named as Nurit Cooper, 79, and Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, were handed over to the Israeli military and would be taken to a medical facility.
The two were kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Oz, near the Gaza border, along with their husbands, who were still held by Hamas, it added. Hamas freed them after releasing an American woman and her daughter on Friday.
All four were seized in the Oct. 7 cross-border assault in which the Islamist Hamas killed 1,400 people.
In public, the United States has stressed Israel’s right to defend itself but two sources familiar with the matter said the White House, Pentagon and State Department have stepped up private appeals for caution in conversations with the Israelis.
A U.S. priority is to gain time for negotiations to free other hostages, especially after Friday’s unexpected release of Americans Judith and Natalie Raanan on Friday, said the sources, who spoke before the hostage releases were announced on Monday.
Asked about the possibility of a ceasefire, U.S. President Joe Biden said: “”We should have those hostages released and then we can talk.”
Israel pounded hundreds of targets in Gaza from the air on Monday as its soldiers fought Hamas militants during raids into the besieged Palestinian strip where deaths are soaring and civilians are trapped in harrowing conditions.
Gaza’s health ministry said 436 people had been killed in bombardments over the last 24 hours, most in the south of the narrow, densely populated territory, next to which Israeli troops and tanks have massed for a possible ground invasion.
The Israeli military said it had struck more than 320 targets in Gaza over 24 hours, including a tunnel housing Hamas fighters, dozens of command and lookout posts, and mortar and anti-tank missile launcher positions.
The Israeli bombardment was triggered by the Oct. 7 assault, the bloodiest episode in a single day since the state of Israel was founded 75 years ago.
With Gaza’s 2.3 million people running short of basics, European leaders looked set to follow the United Nations and Arab nations in calling for a “humanitarian pause” in hostilities so aid could reach them.
A U.S. special envoy is negotiating with Israel, Egypt and the United Nations to create a “sustained delivery mechanism” to get aid into Gaza after aid convoys began crossing into the strip from Egypt, the U.S. State Department said on Monday.
The U.N. said desperate Gazans also lacked places to shelter from the unrelenting pounding that has flattened swathes of the Hamas-ruled enclave.
The conflict meanwhile was escalating beyond Gaza.
Israeli aircraft hit positions in south Lebanon held by Hezbollah which, like Hamas, is a group allied to Israel’s long-time foe Iran. The Israeli army and Palestinians also clashed in the occupied West Bank and Hamas fired more rockets into Israel.
At least 5,087 Palestinians have been killed in two weeks of strikes, including 2,055 children, the health ministry said.
Israel’s police and the Shin Bet intelligence agency released footage from their interrogations of captured Hamas gunmen who took part in the Oct. 7 rampage.
In the video clips, one handcuffed Hamas man sitting beside a desk is heard describing the orders they received regarding Israeli civilians – to kill the men and bring the women, children and elderly as hostages.
Another, with an injury on his face, said they were told their prize for bringing captives would be a new home and $10,000.
FIGHTING INSIDE GAZA
Israel said its armed forces’ incursions overnight were partly intended to gather intelligence, with the whereabouts of the hostages unknown, and had helped improve its military readiness.
“These raids are raids that kill squads of terrorists who are preparing for our next stage in the war. These are raids that go deep,” military spokesperson Daniel Hagari said.
Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, said its fighters engaged with an Israeli force that infiltrated southern Gaza, destroying two bulldozers and a tank and forcing the raiders to withdraw.
Israel made no comment on the incident.
The Al-Qassam Brigades also said they were firing missiles at the southern Israeli towns of Ashkelon and Mavki’im. Warning sirens sounded on the Israeli side.
The Israeli military, the Middle East’s most powerful, faces a group that has built up a large arsenal with Iran’s help, fighting in a crowded urban setting and using a vast tunnel network.
The U.N. humanitarian office (OCHA) said about 1.4 million of Gaza’s population – more than half – were now internally displaced, with many seeking refuge in overcrowded U.N. emergency shelters.
Israel has ordered Gaza residents to evacuate the north. But many who had fled appeared to be returning north due to increased bombardments in the south and lack of shelter.
“They told us to evacuate your place and go to Khan Younis because it is safe… They betrayed us and bombed us,” said 18-year-old Dima Al-Lamdani who lost her parents, seven siblings and four members of her uncle’s family in an air strike after the family moved south.
Early on Monday, Israeli warplanes also struck two Hezbollah cells in Lebanon that were planning to launch missiles and rockets towards Israel, the Israeli military said. Israel also hit a Hezbollah compound and an observation post.
In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, two Palestinians were killed at the Jalazone refugee camp near Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority health ministry said.
Residents told that Israeli forces raided the camp and made many arrests as they clashed with gunmen and some youths who threw stones. The Israeli military said 15 suspects were captured, 10 of them Hamas operatives.
A third convoy of 20 aid trucks entered Gaza from Egypt on Monday. The U.N. said aid arriving so far was just 4% of the daily average before the hostilities.