By Rami Amichay
TEL AVIV, Israel (Reuters) -The families of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip have been racked with worry for their loved ones since the military stepped up ground assaults inside the Palestinian territory, a group lobbying for the families said on Saturday.
"This night was the most terrible of all nights ... against the backdrop of the major IDF (Israel Defense Forces) operation in the Strip," the Hostages and Missing Families Forum said in a statement.
It said that the hostages being held by Hamas were being subjected to the same heavy bombardment as Palestinian residents and that their families were racked with "anxiety, frustration" that Israel's long-awaited ground invasion will put them in more danger.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with some of the families. In a video his office released, he said that recovering the hostages was an "integral" part of the military's goals. Pressure is key. The greater the pressure the greater the chances," he said.
In a protest outside Israel's defence headquarters in Tel Aviv, dozens gathered carrying pictures of the captives, chanting "return them now".
Meirav Leshem Gonen, whose daughter Romi is believed to have been kidnapped from the site of the Nova music festival, said any military operation must consider the fate of their loved ones who have been held incommunicado for three weeks.
"We are scared, we are worried, where are they? What's happening with them? Who is taking care of them? We heard yesterday about the tanks gong in and we are all concerned," she said.
Describing the meeting with Netanyahu as difficult, she said the families believed that a swap deal that would see the release of all Palestinian prisoners in Israel in return for all the hostages would win wide public support.
Israel has been bombarding the Gaza Strip, which Palestinian militant group Hamas controls, since Hamas waged a deadly Oct. 7 assault that targeted army outposts and civilian communities in the area and killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians.
Hamas took more than 200 hostages, including children, back into Gaza during its raids. It has so far released four and said on Thursday that Israeli bombing had killed another 50 - a claim Reuters could not verify.
Israel's air strikes and artillery fire have demolished large swathes of Gaza and killed more than 7,000 people in the last three weeks, Palestinian health officials say, including some 3,000 children.
Israel said on Saturday that it stepped up ground operations inside Gaza overnight, during internet and power blackouts in the Strip, and that forces were still fighting in the area, without elaborating.
Israel said on Wednesday that more than half the hostages held by Hamas have foreign passports from 25 different countries. Many were believed to have had dual Israeli nationality.
The hostages are believed to be hidden in the Gaza Strip, possibly in a warren of tunnels Hamas has built there.
(Additional reporting by John Davison and Maayan Lubell; Writing by John Davison; editing by Giles Elgood and David Evans)