RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel escalated its bombardment of targets in the Gaza Strip, the military said Tuesday, ahead of an expected ground invasion against Hamas militants that the U.S. fears could spark a wider conflict in the region, including attacks on American troops.
The stepped-up attacks, and the rapidly rising death toll of thousands killed in Gaza, came as Hamas released two elderly Israeli women who were among the hundreds of hostages it captured during its devastating Oct. 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 French citizens who were killed or held hostage before heading to talks with top Israeli officials.
He told Israel’s President Isaac Herzog that he came “to express our support and solidarity and share your pain” as well as to assure Israel it is “not left alone in the war against terrorism.”
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 supplies 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.
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 centers 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.
An overnight strike hit a four-story residential building in the southern city of Khan Younis, killing at least 32 people and wounding scores of others, according to survivors.
The fatalities included 13 from the Saqallah family, said Ammar al-Butta, a relative who survived the airstrike. He said there were about 100 people there, including many who had come from Gaza City, which Israel has ordered civilians to evacuate.
“They were sheltering at our home because we thought that our area would be safe. But apparently there is no safe place in Gaza,” he said.
Fifteen members of another 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.
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, and Hamas said it fired a new barrage Tuesday morning.
“We continue to attack forcefully in Gaza City and its environs, where Hamas is building up its terrorist infrastructure, where Hamas is arraying its troops,” said Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari. He again told Palestinians to head south “for your personal safety.”
The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees said six of its staff were killed in bombings, bringing the number of its workers killed since the war started to 35. The agency said it found shrapnel in two of its facilities from nearby bombings.
The war has killed more than 5,000 Palestinians, including some 2,000 minors and around 1,100 women, 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.
The fighting has killed more than 1,400 people in Israel — mostly civilians slain during the initial Hamas attack.
On Monday night, 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.
Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv released photos Tuesday of Lifshitz sitting in an armchair, being wheeled in a wheelchair down a hall, soldiers in tow, and kissing unidentified people.
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 Oct. 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.
Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas. Iranian-backed fighters around the region are warning of possible escalation, including the targeting of U.S. forces deployed in the Mideast, if a ground offensive is launched.
The U.S. 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 U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria, and the U.S. was “deeply concerned about the possibility for any significant escalation” in the coming days.
He said U.S. officials were having “active conversations” with Israeli counterparts about the potential ramifications of escalated military action.
The U.S. 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 U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were authorized 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 U.N.-run schools and shelters, the U.N. said Monday.
Magdy reported from Cairo and Krauss from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Wafaa Shurafa in Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, Aamer Madhani in Washington, Amy Teibel in Jerusalem, Brian Melley in London, contributed to this report.
Find more of AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/israel-hamas-war