The military said a female soldier captured during Hamas’ wide-ranging Oct. 7 attack inside Israel had been released during its ground operation.
KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip: Israeli troops and tanks pushed deeper into Gaza on Monday, freeing a soldier held captive by Hamas militants and advancing on two sides of the territory’s main city. The U.N. and medical staff warned that airstrikes have hit closer to hospitals where tens of thousands of Palestinians have sought shelter alongside thousands of wounded.
The military said a female soldier captured during Hamas’ wide-ranging Oct. 7 attack inside Israel had been released during its ground operation — the first such rescue since the weekslong war began. The statement provided few details, but said Pvt. Ori Megidish “is doing well” and has met with her family.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed her home in a brief statement, saying “our forces” had freed her from Hamas. He said the “achievement” by Israel’s security forces “illustrates our commitment to free all the hostages.”
Hamas and other militant groups are believed to be holding some 240 captives, including men, women and children. Netanyahu has faced mounting pressure to secure their release even as Israel wages a punishing war it says is aimed at crushing Hamas and ending its 16-year rule over the territory.
Hamas, which has released four hostages, has said it would let the others go in return for thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, including many implicated in deadly attacks on Israelis. Israel has dismissed the offer. Earlier Monday, Netanyahu had said that the ground invasion “creates opportunities to release hostages.”
Hamas released a short video Monday purporting to show three other female captives. One of the women delivers a brief statement — likely under duress — criticizing Israel’s response to the hostage crisis.
It was not clear when the Hamas video was made. The Associated Press usually refrains from reporting details of hostage videos because they show individuals speaking under duress and are often used for propaganda purposes.
The military has been vague about its operations inside Gaza, including the location and number of troops. Israel has declared a new “phase” in the war but stopped short of declaring an all-out ground invasion, even as it has deployed tens of thousands of troops to the border.
The movements of recent days, including larger ground operations both north and east of Gaza City, point to a focus on the city. Israel says much of Hamas’ forces and militant infrastructure, including hundreds of miles (kilometers) of tunnels, are in Gaza City, which before the war was home to over 650,000 people, a population comparable to that of Washington, D.C.
Casualties on both sides are expected to rise sharply if Israeli forces expand their ground operation and end up battling Palestinian militants in dense residential areas.
Though Israel ordered Palestinians to flee the north, where Gaza City is located, and move south, hundreds of thousands remain, in part because Israel has also bombarded targets in so-called safe zones. Around 117,000 displaced people hoping to stay safe from strikes are staying in hospitals in northern Gaza, alongside thousands of patients and staff, according to U.N. figures.
The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, says nearly 672,000 Palestinians are sheltering in its schools and other facilities across Gaza, which have reached four times their capacity.
The death toll among Palestinians passed 8,300, mostly women and children, the Gaza Health Ministry said Monday. The figure is without precedent in decades of Israeli-Palestinian violence. More than 1.4 million people in Gaza have fled their homes.
Over 1,400 people have died on the Israeli side, mainly civilians killed during Hamas’ initial attack, also an unprecedented figure.
Video circulating on social media showed an Israeli tank and bulldozer in central Gaza blocking the territory’s main highway, which the Israeli military in recent weeks has suggested Palestinians use to evacuate to the south. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who remain in the north would no longer be able to escape if the road is blocked.
The video, taken by a local journalist, shows a car approaching an earth barrier across the road. The car stops and turns around. As it heads away, a tank appears to open fire, and an explosion engulfs the car. The journalist, in another car, races away in terror, screaming, “Go back! Go back!” at an approaching ambulance and other vehicles.
The Gaza Health Ministry later said three people were killed in the car that was hit.
Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, an Israeli military spokesman, declined to comment on where Israeli forces are deployed. He said additional infantry, armored, engineering and artillery units had entered Gaza and the operations would continue to “expand and intensify.”
The military said troops have killed dozens of militants who attacked from inside buildings and tunnels. It said that in the last few days, it had struck more than 600 militant targets, including weapons depots and antitank missile launching positions. Palestinian militants have continued firing rockets into Israel, including toward its commercial hub, Tel Aviv.
Hamas said its fighters clashed with Israeli troops who entered the northwest. It was not possible to independently confirm battlefield claims made by either side.
Meanwhile, crowded hospitals in northern Gaza came under growing threat.
Gaza’s Health Ministry shared video footage that appeared to show an explosion and a column of smoke near the Turkish-Palestinian Friendship Hospital for cancer patients. The hospital director, Dr. Sobhi Skaik, said it had sustained damage in a strike that endangered patients.
All 10 hospitals operating in northern Gaza have received evacuation orders, the U.N.’s office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs said. Staff have refused to leave, saying evacuation would mean death for patients on ventilators.
Strikes hit within 50 meters (yards) of Al Quds Hospital after it received two calls from Israeli authorities on Sunday ordering it to evacuate, the Palestinian Red Crescent rescue service said. Some windows were blown out, and rooms were covered in debris. It said 14,000 people are sheltering there
Israel says it targets Hamas fighters and infrastructure and that the militants operate among civilians, putting them in danger.
Beyond the fighting, conditions for civilians in Gaza are continually deteriorating as food, medicine and fuel run dangerously low amid a weekslong Israeli siege.
On Sunday, the largest convoy of humanitarian aid yet — 33 trucks — entered the territory from Egypt. Relief workers say the amount is still far less than what is needed for the population of 2.3 million people.
The siege has pushed Gaza’s infrastructure nearly to collapse. With no central power for weeks and little fuel, hospitals are struggling to keep emergency generators running to operate incubators and other life-saving equipment. UNRWA has been trying to keep water pumps and bakeries running.
The fighting has raised concerns that the violence could spread across the region. Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah have engaged in daily skirmishes along Israel’s northern border.
In the occupied West Bank, Israel said its warplanes carried out airstrikes Monday against militants clashing with its forces in the Jenin refugee camp, the scene of repeated Israeli raids. Hamas said four of its fighters were killed there. As of Sunday, Israeli forces and settlers have killed 123 Palestinians, including 33 minors, in the West Bank, half of them during search-and-arrest operations, the U.N. said.
(Magdy reported from Cairo, and Keath from Athens, Greece. Associated Press writers Julia Frankel and Amy Teibel in Jerusalem, and Jack Jeffery in Cairo contributed to this report.)