Israel’s military intensified its assault on Hamas militants in Gaza, as the United States and other global powers called for aid to continue flowing into the besieged strip to prevent an already grave humanitarian crisis from worsening.
Israel’s military said it had hit more than 400 militant targets in Gaza overnight and killed dozens of Hamas fighters, including three deputy battalion commanders.
In a statement, the military said that among the targets hit was a tunnel which allowed Hamas to infiltrate Israel from the sea and Hamas command centres in mosques. Reuters could not immediately verify the report.
The Ramallah-based Palestinian Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that more than 120 Palestinians were killed in Israeli air strikes that targeted inhabited homes in different areas of the Gaza Strip.
Earlier, Israeli Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi suggested Israel had no intention of curbing its strikes.
“We want to bring Hamas to a state of full dismantling,” Halevi said in a statement late on Monday.
“We are well prepared for the ground operations in the south,” he added, referring to southern Israel, which abuts Gaza. “Troops who have more time are better prepared, and that is what we are doing now.”
The Palestinian health ministry said the Gaza death toll had topped 5,000 in two weeks of Israeli air strikes in response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel in which the Islamist militant group killed more than 1,400 people.
Hamas on Monday freed two Israeli women among the more than 200 hostages taken during its Oct. 7 assault. They were the third and fourth hostages to be released.
U.S. President Joe Biden welcomed the release of the hostages and underscored the need to sustain “a continuous flow” of humanitarian assistance into Gaza in a telephone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the White House said.
China, which along with Russia has found itself in a separate camp to the United States, called for a “more authoritative, wide-ranging and effective international peace conference” soon, Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki in a telephone call.
A Cairo peace summit last Saturday saw Arab leaders condemn Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, but fail to agree on a joint statement. Absent were Israel and the United States.
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, said the sources, who spoke before the hostage releases were announced on Monday.
Asked about the possibility of a ceasefire, Biden said: “We should have those hostages released and then we can talk.”
At least 10 British nationals have been killed in the conflict between Israel and Hamas and a further six remain missing, junior British finance minister Victoria Atkins told Times Radio on Tuesday.
Barack Obama, in a rare comment by a former U.S. president on a foreign policy crisis, warned Israel’s military strategy could backfire it if continued to ignore the human cost.
In a written statement, he urged Israel to limit civilian casualties, adding that it would alienate generations of Palestinians, erode global support and undermine long-term peace efforts.
“Already, thousands of Palestinians have been killed in the bombing of Gaza, many of them children. Hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes,” Obama said.
“The Israeli government’s decision to cut off food, water and electricity to a captive civilian population threatens not only to worsen a growing humanitarian crisis,” he added.
He also condemned Hamas’ attack and reiterated his support for Israel’s right to defend itself.
It was not immediately clear whether Obama coordinated his statement with Biden, who was his vice president. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken planned on Tuesday to attend a U.N. Security Council meeting on the Middle East, though it was unclear what action, if any, might be taken by the council, whose five veto-wielding powers appear divided.
Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has allowed China and Russia to burnish their credentials as the champions of the developing world, in contrast with the United States, which has squarely supported Israel. All three big powers hold Council vetoes.
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.
The U.N. said desperate Gazans also lacked places to shelter from the unrelenting pounding that has flattened swathes of the Hamas-ruled enclave.