As two more hostages are released, American officials have urged Israel to delay a ground invasion, to allow time for negotiations and for more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza.
Israel’s military struck hundreds of targets in Gaza on Monday, in one of the biggest barrages yet of its war with Hamas and as a trickle of aid arrived for desperate Palestinians in the strip, where the lack of clean water, medicine and other critical supplies is fueling a dire humanitarian crisis.
American officials have urged Israel to delay its widely anticipated ground invasion of Gaza, to allow more time for aid and for negotiations to release the more than 200 people being held hostage by Hamas and other armed groups in Gaza.
Hamas said on Monday that it had released two elderly Israeli women it had been holding captive, which was later confirmed by Israel and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Both women were abducted during the Hamas-led attack earlier this month that killed more than 1,400 people. Their husbands were also taken hostage and remain in the group’s custody, the Israeli authorities said.
As Israeli officials have increasingly indicated they plan a wide-ranging ground operation in Gaza, President Biden and his allies have sought to prevent the war, which began in retaliation for the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, from growing into a regional conflict.
Israel has repeatedly exchanged fire with another armed group, Hezbollah, along its border with Lebanon, striking more Hezbollah positions on Monday while attack warning sirens rang out in northern Israel. And the Israeli military has already conducted some small raids in the Gaza Strip, reporting on Sunday that an Israeli soldier was killed and three others injured during one such operation.
The Israelis and Egypt have begun allowing some aid into Gaza, after weeks of tortuous diplomatic negotiations. On Monday, the third convoy of aid arrived in Gaza in as many days. But the trucks, numbering only a few dozen total, carried far too little to help the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians seeking critical supplies.
“Too many lives have already been lost, and the humanitarian crisis is growing,” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain told Parliament on Monday. The convoys that have arrived in Gaza so far were not enough, he said. “We need a constant stream of aid pouring in.”
The Gaza Health Ministry, which is run by Hamas, reported a sharp rise in the death toll after Israel’s latest barrage. The ministry said on Monday at least 436 people were killed in Israeli airstrikes “in the past hours,” including 182 children.
The statement brought the death toll in Gaza to more than 5,000 people, according to the ministry, since Israel began retaliating for the Hamas assaults of Oct. 7. The figures could not be independently verified, and Israel’s military has sometimes accused Hamas of inflating the count.
Before that attack, conditions were already dire for the over two million Palestinians who live in Gaza, which was under a crushing blockade by Egypt and Israel and had faced soaring unemployment and frequent shortages of medicine and fuel.
Now, residents and aid workers say, survival in Gaza is an increasingly desperate challenge. Clean water is hard to find, and fuel nearly impossible. Medicine is dwindling and hospitals are packed with the wounded, the displaced and the dead.
After the Hamas attack this month, Israel enacted what it called a “complete siege,” barring entry of fuel, food and water. In recent days, the Israeli authorities have agreed not to block the entry of some aid convoys into Gaza by way of Egypt’s Rafah border crossing, provided there is oversight and the assistance does not reach Hamas.
Fear has been mounting for the safety of the hostages abducted from Israel, especially as Israelis learned from the military on Monday that 222 people were believed to be held captive, 10 more than previously known. The captives are believed to be scattered and hidden around Gaza, with many likely held in the tunnels and bunkers that Hamas uses beneath the territory.
On Monday night, the Israeli prime minister’s office confirmed that Hamas had released Nurit Cooper, 79, and Yocheved Lifshitz, 85. The group had also released two American-Israeli women on Friday, citing “humanitarian reasons” and mediation by Qatar.
Ms. Lifshitz and her husband, Oded, an Israeli journalist, were peace activists, family members said. Mr. Lifshitz had volunteered to drive sick Gazans seeking medical treatment in Israel from the Erez checkpoint to Israeli hospitals, according to his family.
Both women were taken captive by Hamas gunmen on Oct. 7 when they invaded Nir Oz, the kibbutz where the Lifshitzes lived. The small community of 400 was particularly hard-hit, with scores dead, missing or taken as captives to Gaza.
“My father spent his life fighting for peace,” Sharone Lifshitz, the couple’s daughter, told a news conference in London this month. “We are going to spend the rest of our lives dealing with this atrocity,” she added.
As negotiations to help the hostages have borne some fruit in recent days, Israel’s allies have also urged it to allow far more aid into Gaza, fearing a humanitarian catastrophe.
On Sunday, President Biden spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about a “continued flow” of aid for Palestinians, according to the White House. On Monday, prominent European leaders called for urgent action to help them.
In addition to Mr. Sunak’s announcement of a package of about $24.4 million in food, water and other supplies, there were direct calls for some kind of agreement to pause the airstrikes.
The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell Fontelles, on Monday called for a “humanitarian pause” in Israel’s airstrikes to allow aid to enter and hostages held by Hamas to get out. The French prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, similarly urged a “humanitarian truce.”
Speaking to French lawmakers on Monday, she said that France was “a friend of Israel, a friend of the Palestinians and a friend of the Arab countries in the region.”
But she urged Israel to “avoid the trap laid by Hamas.” Civilian populations, she said, “must not pay for the crimes of terrorists.”
Israel has ordered the evacuation of more than a million people from northern Gaza in anticipation of a possible ground invasion, but airstrikes continue to land all over the territory, including areas that fleeing Palestinians had hoped would be safe havens. The Gaza Health Ministry said on Monday that most of the recent casualties were in the south.
And the borders remain closed to all but the recent crawl of aid convoys. The United Nations said 20 trucks arrived in Gaza on Saturday, followed by 14 trucks on Sunday and 20 trucks on Monday. Each convoy entered Gaza through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, said Wael Abu Omar, the spokesman for the crossing at the Hamas-run Gaza interior ministry.
Relief agencies say vastly more aid is needed to help Palestinian civilians in a meaningful way. But Mr. Biden and the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany and Italy welcomed the convoys in a joint statement on Sunday.
Their latest statement, like others before it, supported Israel’s right to defend itself but also urged it to adhere “to international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians.”
The leaders added that they aim “to prevent the conflict from spreading, preserve stability in the Middle East, and work toward a political solution and durable peace.”
A focal point of many Western officials’ fears is Lebanon, where nearly 20,000 people have been displaced so far as fighting intensifies on its southern border between Hezbollah and Israel, according to the U.N. migration agency.
A war on two fronts, Gaza and Lebanon, would present Israel with a far more complex and difficult military challenge, officials say, with increasingly dangerous stakes for everyone involved. Hezbollah has ties with other militant groups and is backed by Iran, and has a far more significant arsenal than Hamas.
The Israeli authorities said on Sunday that they would evacuate 14 more Israeli towns near the northern border with Lebanon amid the escalating violence. More than 200,000 Israelis were estimated to have been displaced since war broke out, according to the Israeli prime minister’s office.
American officials, some recalling the difficult U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, have urged Israel to be cautious in considering an invasion.
“There are so many factors, rushing into this probably is not the best approach,” Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who heads the Armed Services Committee, said by phone from Cairo, where he and other senators were wrapping up a trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt.
A block-by-block, urban fight in Gaza, a densely populated enclave, would be “a long-term effort,” Mr. Reed said, noting that it took the Iraqi Army, with U.S. help, nine months to rout the Islamic State from its stronghold in Mosul in 2017.
Euan Ward contributed reporting from Beirut, Ben Hubbard from Istanbul, Megan Specia from London, Aurelien Breeden from Paris, Iyad Abuheweila from Cairo, Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels, Eric Schmitt from Washington and Nadav Gavrielov from New York.