Hamas frees two Israeli women as US advises delaying ground war to allow talks on captives

This image taken from video shows Yocheved Lifshitz, 85, center, and Nurit Cooper, 79, being escorted by Hamas as they are released Monday to the Red Cross in an unknown location. (Al Qassam brigades via AP)

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Hamas on Monday released two elderly Israeli women held hostage in Gaza as the United States expressed increasing concern that the escalating Israel-Hamas war will spark a wider conflict in the region, including attacks on American troops.

The death toll in Gaza rose rapidly as Israel ramped up airstrikes that flattened buildings in what it said was preparation for an eventual ground assault. The United States advised Israel to delay the expected invasion to allow time to negotiate the release of more hostages taken by Hamas during its brutal incursion two weeks ago.

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A third small aid convoy from Egypt entered Gaza, where the population of 2.3 million has been running out of food, water and medicine under Israel’s sealed border. With Israel still barring entry of fuel, the U.N. said its distribution of aid would grind to a halt within days when it can no longer fuel its trucks. Gaza hospitals flooded by a constant stream of wounded are struggling to keep generators running to power lifesaving medical equipment and incubators for premature babies.

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 two women, along with their husbands, were snatched from their homes in the kibbutz of Nir Oz near the Gaza border during Hamas’ Oct. 7 rampage into southern Israeli communities. 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.

Lifschitz, an artist and academic in London who uses a different spelling for her name, 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.”

Hamas apparently received nothing in exchange for the release of the two hostages, who 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.

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