Hamas on Monday said it had freed two Israeli women who were among the more than 200 hostages taken during its October 7 rampage in southern Israel while sources said the US 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 October 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 US 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, US 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, a nd mortar and anti-tank missile launcher positions.
The Israeli bombardment was triggered by the October 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 US 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 US State Department said on Monday.
The UN 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.