Update(1845ET): Russia has weighed in strongly against the additional US warships recently sent by the Pentagon to the Middle East region, saying this heightened US presence only serves as a risk of "escalation" of the conflict in Gaza.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday during a meeting Tehran that "the more a state takes this kind of proactive measures, the greater the risk and the danger of an escalation of the conflict". He called out Washington as "already among the countries intervening the most" since the October 7 Hamas terror attack.
The same day, the Pentagon said it believes Iran-backed groups in the region are planning to ramp up attacks on US forces in the region. This came amid continuing sporadic drone and missile strikes against US bases in Syria and Iraq. According to a fresh CNN report:
There are “red lights flashing everywhere,” a US official in the region told CNN.
Officials said that at this point, Iran appears to be encouraging the groups rather than explicitly directing them. One official said Iran is providing guidance to the militia groups that they will not be punished – by not getting resupplied with weaponry, for example – if they continue to attack US or Israeli targets.
On Monday, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said there is “a very direct connection between these groups” and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and he said the US is “deeply concerned about the potential of any significant escalation of these attacks in the days ahead.”
Kirby added in his comments, “Iran’s goal is to maintain some plausible deniability here, but we are not going to allow them to do that.”
Meanwhile, yet more confusing statement and mixed signals from the US Commander-in-Chief at these crucial and dangerous moments...
🚨JUST IN: BIDEN MIXED MESSAGES ON GAZA CEASEFIRE— Mario Nawfal (@MarioNawfal) October 23, 2023
"Is the U.S. supporting the hostages for ceasefire deal?"
BIDEN: "We should have a ceasefire. Not a ceasefire. We should have those hostages released and then we can talk." pic.twitter.com/3eqeQyQyPK
And there was this strange moment during a press briefing Monday:
🚨#BREAKING: President Joe Biden interrupts his speech, saying he needs to head to the situation room, and he states, “I have to go to the situation room. There’s an issue I need to deal with.” pic.twitter.com/YZOR1eSYi8— R A W S A L E R T S (@rawsalerts) October 23, 2023
China also weighed in Monday, offering that it is willing to "do anything" to restore peace, but emphasized that "prospects are worrying" - according to China's Middle East special envoy Zhai Jun.
Below: Hamas released video of the two elderly women released from captivity today. The Israeli government has confirmed the handover, and they are now undergoing evaluation in a Tel Aviv hospital:
رفضت المحتجزة أن تترك مجاهدي كتائب القسام وتغادر قبل أن تحييهم. pic.twitter.com/9RF4Rq966c— رضوان الأخرس (@rdooan) October 23, 2023
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Update(0350ET): Hamas has announced the release of two more hostages, bringing the total numbered free since they were kidnapped Oct.7 to four. Al Jazeera is reporting, "The latest release of two Israeli captives from Gaza – both women – follows the release late last week of two US citizens."
The newly freed women have been identified as 79-year old Nurit Cooper and 85-year old Yocheved Lifshitz.
Hamas has reportedly demanded fuel in release for more hostages, given electricity has been out across the strip, and fuel is needed to generate power locally. Israel has reportedly countered that all hostages must be freed for deliveries to be allowed into Gaza. This has predictably led to a breakdown in negotiations, which have been mediated by Qatar:
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Update(1235ET): It has become clear at this point that Israel is stalling its 'imminent' ground invasion of Gaza in order to buy more time to negotiate for the release of hostages, now numbered at 222 in Hamas/PIJ captivity. As we detailed below, the White House is putting pressure on Tel Aviv to delay, also no doubt on fears that a full assault will trigger a war with Hezbollah in the north. From there, things could spin out of control, also with Russian, Iranian, and Chinese military assets positioned in the region in addition to an American carrier strike group.
The New York Times is reporting Monday morning that Hamas could be preparing to release 50 hostages with dual citizenship, amid negotiations mediated by Qatar:
The U.S. wants more time for hostage negotiations. On Friday, the U.S. secured the release of two American hostages, with Qatar’s help. Israel believes Hamas may release about 50 hostages who are citizens of another country as well as Israel, but a ground invasion could make hostage releases less likely.
According to more from the NY Times:
A senior Israeli military official said that based on conversations between the United States and Qatar, Hamas could possibly release about 50 dual nationals separate from any broader deal.
The repeated delays also reflect a growing tension between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gallant, his defense minister, who supports a broad military operation that would also include Hezbollah, the powerful militia in Lebanon.
Al-Arabiya has separately issued a headline saying that the hostages will be released "within hours".
مصادر العربية: أنباء عن تسليم حماس لعدد من الرهائن الأجانب خلال ساعات #العربية_عاجل— العربية عاجل (@AlArabiya_Brk) October 23, 2023
If this major hostage release does materialize, it is likely to create conditions that stall an IDF ground invasion further.
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The United Nations has revised its grim figure of the rising death toll from Israel's bombardment of Gaza, saying that it has surpassed 5,000 as of Monday. It stands at 5,087. Separately, over 90 Palestinians have been killed in escalating West Bank violence, which over the weekend included Israel launching a rare airstrike on Jenin. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) are still holding at least 222 Israeli and foreign captives - a number which has again been revised upward.
European Union foreign ministers are meanwhile gathered in Brussels for an urgent meeting to take up the contentious issue of a ceasefire. UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres has been calling on world bodies to back a ceasefire. In response, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said, "Personally, I think that a humanitarian pause is needed in order to allow the humanitarian support to come in and be distributed, seeing that half of the population of Gaza has been moving from their houses."
Bloomberg is reporting Monday morning that EU leaders are set to endorse a call for a "humanitarian pause". "The European Council supports the call of UNSG (U.N. Secretary-General Antonio) Guterres for a humanitarian pause in order to allow for safe humanitarian access and aid to reach those in need," a draft statement of the summit reads.
But Washington, Israel's staunchest supporter, is not expected to back a ceasefire - despite reports President Biden has sought for Israel's military delay the expected imminent ground invasion, in order to buy more time to negotiate the freedom of more hostages.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the Sunday news shows made this clear. Margaret Brennan, the host of CBS News’s "Face the Nation," asked him, "UNICEF says 1,524 children have been killed in the Gaza Strip during these bombings. Why isn’t the US calling for at least a temporary ceasefire?"
Blinken then claimed that children dying on either side has hit him "right in the heart" - but he stopped short of directing any criticism at Israel's indiscriminate and unrelenting bombing campaign. Instead, he defended it:
"Israel has to do everything it can to make sure this doesn’t happen again," Blinken said in reference to October 7 Hamas cross-border attack. "Freezing things in place where they are now would allow Hamas to remain where it is and to repeat what it’s done some time in the future. No country could accept that."
He then cited unverified reports that Hamas has actively blocked Palestinians who are also American citizens from leaving the Gaza Strip. "We’ve had people come to Rafah, the crossing with Egypt. And to date, at least, Hamas has blocked them from leaving, showing once again, its total disregard for civilians of any kind who are — who are stuck in Gaza," Blinken said. "So really, the ball is in Hamas’ court, in terms of letting people who want to leave, civilians from third countries, including Americans get out of Gaza."
There are a reported up to 600 Americans stuck in Gaza, with one Palestinian-American telling NBC that "America’s not helping us, Biden’s not helping us, the embassy is not helping us."
🚨 JUST IN: Heavyweight Israeli journalist Edy Cohen posted this video with the following caption:— Mario Nawfal (@MarioNawfal) October 23, 2023
"Its name was Gaza
Next Beirut" pic.twitter.com/wHfJEO14MD
The United States is still bolstering its military presence in Middle East waters, readying for any contingency, even as it's said to be pressing for furthering back-channel negotiations and delaying an all-out Israeli assault:
It was becoming increasingly clear Monday that the U.S. wants Israel to not only allow more humanitarian assistance into Gaza, but for the country to let ongoing negotiations over the release of hostages held by Hamas to continue before it launches a ground invasion of the Palestinian territory. Israel said Monday that Hamas was still holding 222 people captive.
Two sources told CBS News the U.S. has sought to slow Israel's plans for a ground invasion in order to prioritize the release of hostages and the distribution of aid, a message Washington is said to have been conveying primarily through defense channels.
The Pentagon is calling its moving two aircraft carrier strike groups into regional waters an act of "deterrence".
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had announced Saturday, "Following detailed discussions with President Biden on recent escalations by Iran and its proxy forces across the Middle East Region, today I directed a series of additional steps to further strengthen the Department of Defense posture in the region." He added: "These steps will bolster regional deterrence efforts, increase force protection for U.S. forces in the region, and assist in the defense of Israel."
The White House has Iran in mind, and its proxies Hezbollah and Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen, the latter who days ago tried to fire missiles on Israel, but which were intercepted by a US warship off Yemen's coast. US THAAD and Patriot missile batteries have been sent to Israel.
In response to recent escalations by Iran & its proxy forces across the Middle East, SecDef Austin directed the USS Eisenhower, a THAAD BTRY, & additional Patriot BNs to the CENTCOM region to increase force posture, strengthen capabilities & ability to respond to contingencies. https://t.co/5twxq1y5Hq pic.twitter.com/fKjZSrinCi— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) October 22, 2023
"This is not what we want, not what we’re looking for. We don’t want escalation," Blinken said. "We don’t want to see our forces or our personnel come under fire. But if that happens, we’re ready for it." And Austin simultaneously affirmed the statements, saying "what we’re seeing is a prospect of a significant escalation of attacks on our troops and our people throughout the region."
It's clear Hezbollah has held off committing itself to a major war with Israel, which could very well happen the moment the IDF mounts a major ground assault into Gaza. Hezbollah's arsenal, with the help of Iran, is far superior to that of Hamas', and is said to include tens of thousands of rockets of varying sizes.
There's still been regular exchange of rocket and mortar fire, with Israeli sources reporting Monday that the Iron Dome intercepted an inbound drone from Lebanon via the sea. It was intercepted over Ein Hamifratz, south of Acre. At this point, several dozens of Israeli towns and communities have been evacuated from near the northern border.