The Israeli military carried out more than 300 airstrikes Monday on the Gaza Strip, even as U.S. officials say Washington is advising Israel to delay its planned ground invasion of the Hamas-governed territory to allow more time to negotiate the release of the more than 200 hostages being held by Hamas.
Hamas has so far released just two hostages, an American mother and her daughter last week, after negotiations conducted through Qatar intermediaries. The U.S. has been working with regional partners in the Mideast to try to free others, but so far to no avail.
A ground invasion would likely further complicate any negotiations over hostages, with at least some of them believed to be held in an elaborate web of tunnels that militants have built in Gaza over the years even as Israel has blockaded the territory along the Mediterranean Sea.
Israeli defense chief Yoav Gallant last week vowed to more than 300,000 troops positioned along the Gaza border that they would soon advance into the territory but left open the question of the timing of an invasion.
It was unclear to what extent U.S. entreaties to hold off on a ground attack might influence Israeli decision-making. Top U.S. officials — Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin — expressed concern during Sunday news talk show interviews about the Israel-Hamas war escalating into a broader Middle East conflict.
Gaza’s Hamas-run Interior Ministry said at least 18 people were killed in Israeli attacks on neighborhoods in Rafah city on Monday, and scores injured.
The Israeli military released videos showing airstrikes destroying buildings in the Gaza Strip. The military said the videos showed attacks on Hamas infrastructure but did not specify the locations.
Flashes of yellow light were followed by an explosion sending gray smoke and debris shooting upward as multistory buildings collapsed or toppled over.
Israeli aircraft also struck multiple Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, including cells the military said were preparing to launch anti-tank missiles and rockets toward Israel.
Iran-backed militias in Iraq said Monday they hit a strategic base used by the U.S. military in southeastern Syria.
The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group of Iranian-backed militias, said two drones attacked the al-Tanf garrison near the Jordanian and Iraqi borders, after a string of similar attacks on bases housing U.S. military in Iraq and Syria over the past week.
Meanwhile, European Union foreign ministers met Monday to consider calling for a humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza and discussed ways to get more vital humanitarian aid into Gaza.
Convoys of trucks entered Gaza over the weekend and Monday, but European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that “in normal times, without war, 100 trucks enter into Gaza every day. So it’s clear that 20 [per day] is not enough.”
Borrell said the emphasis must be on getting power and water-providing desalination plants running again. “Without water and electricity, the hospitals can barely work,” he told reporters in Luxembourg, where the EU meeting was taking place.
He said the ministers will also look at ways to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians longer term.
“The great powers have forgotten about the Palestinian issue, thinking it was going to be solved alone, or it doesn’t matter. Yes, it matters,” Borrell said.
Israel has conducted more than two weeks of strikes on Gaza in response to the October 7 attack by Hamas militants that killed 1,400 people, according to Israel.
The death toll in Gaza Monday had reached at least 5,087 people, with another 15,273 people injured, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
Israeli officials have vowed to continue the Gaza campaign until Hamas has no more ability to attack.
The United Nations says about 1.4 million people have fled their homes and that there are critical shortages of water, food, fuel and medicine in Gaza.
Borrell also said efforts toward de-escalation must include a halt to Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza and the release of hostages the militant group is holding.
The leaders of the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Britain on Sunday discussed the Israel-Hamas war during a telephone call convened by U.S. President Joe Biden.
In a joint statement, they underscored their support for Israel and its right to defend itself, but also urged it to adhere to international humanitarian law and protect civilians. They welcomed the release of the two American hostages and called for the immediate release of all remaining hostages.
U.S. Defense Secretary Austin and Secretary Blinken both said in interviews Sunday the United States is concerned about the Israel-Hamas war expanding in the Middle East.
Austin told ABC’s “This Week” show, “We’re concerned about potential escalation … a significant escalation.” But he said the U.S. has “the ability to respond,” noting that a U.S. Navy warship shot down drones launched from Yemen that might have been headed toward Israel.
“We maintain the right to defend ourselves and we won’t hesitate to respond,” Austin said.
Blinken told NBC’s “Meet the Press” show, “We expect that there’s a likelihood of escalation. Escalation by Iranian proxies directed against our forces, directed against our personnel.”
“We are taking steps to make sure that we can effectively defend our people and respond decisively if we need to,” the top U.S. diplomat said. “This is not what we want, not what we’re looking for. We don’t want escalation. We don’t want to see a second or third front develop. We don’t want to see our forces, or our personnel come under fire. But if that happens, we’re ready for it.”
Blinken said the U.S., while warning Hezbollah against expansion of fighting against Israel from Lebanon, has “deployed very significant [military] assets to the region, two aircraft carrier battle groups, not to provoke, but to deter, to make clear that if anyone tries to do anything, we’re there.”
United Nations correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this article.