RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli forces rescued two hostages early Monday, storming a heavily guarded apartment in the southern Gaza Strip and extracting the captives under fire in a dramatic raid that was a modest but symbolically significant success for Israel. The operation killed at least 67 Palestinians, including women and children, according to Palestinian health officials in the besieged territory.
To assist the relief forces, heavy airstrikes bombarded the area near the apartment in Rafah, a town on the southern edge from the Gaza Strip, where 1.4 million Palestinians have fled to escape fighting elsewhere in the war between Israel and Hamas.
The raid was celebrated in Israel as a victory in the slow battle to free the hostages, with more than 100 captives still held by Hamas and other Gaza militants, and briefly lifted the morale of a nation still under shock of Hamas’ latest cross-border raid. year. But in Gaza, where civilians have borne a heavy toll since the war began on October 7, the operation triggered another war tragedy, with many Palestinians killed or injured.
The fate of the hostages deeply shook Israelis, and the government made the release of dozens of remaining prisoners a priority objective of its war, while destroying Hamas’s military and government capabilities. But as the fights drag onnow in its fifth month, their freedom remains elusive and divisions emerged in Israel on the best approach to end their ordeal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that continued military pressure would bring their freedom – a position he reiterated on Monday – even as other top officials opposed it, saying a deal was the right thing to do. only way to obtain their release.
Israel has described Rafah as the last Hamas stronghold in Gaza and signaled that its ground offensive could soon target the densely populated town. On Sunday, the White House said President Joe Biden warned Netanyahu that Israel should not carry out a military operation against Hamas in Rafah without a “credible and enforceable” plan to protect civilians.
The military identified the rescued hostages as Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, kidnapped by Hamas militants from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak during the Oct. 7 cross-border attack that sparked the war. Netanyahu’s office said they also held Argentine citizenship.
They were among around 250 prisoners captured during Hamas’ astonishing cross-border raid, where around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed, according to Israeli authorities. Israel’s retaliatory air and ground offensive has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians, according to local health authorities, displaced more than 80% of the population and triggered a massive humanitarian crisis.
More than 100 hostages were freed during a week-long ceasefire in November. Israel says around 100 hostages remain in Hamas captivity, and Hamas also holds the remains of around 30 others who were killed on October 7 or died in captivity. Three hostages were killed by mistake by the army after escaping their captors in December.
“Only continued military pressure, until total victory, will result in the release of all our captives,” Netanyahu said in a statement.
A DRAMATIC RAID
Israeli army spokesperson Read Adm. Daniel Hagari, said special forces broke into a second-floor apartment in Rafah under fire at 1:49 a.m. Monday, accompanied a minute later by airstrikes on surrounding areas. He said the hostages were guarded by armed Hamas militants and that members of the rescue team protected the hostages with their bodies as a violent battle broke out simultaneously in several locations with Hamas gunmen.
The hostages were taken to a nearby “safe zone”, given a quick medical examination and flown to Sheba Medical Center in central Israel. Their state of health is said to be good. These are only the second and third hostages must be rescued safely; a female soldier was rescued in November.
The rescue, which Hagari said was based on accurate intelligence and planned for some time, is a morale booster for Israelis but a small step toward freeing the remaining hostages, who are believed to be scattered and hidden in tunnels, probably in poor condition.
Har and Marman were kidnapped from a house in southern Israel along with three other relatives who were released in a deal reached in late November. No other members of their family remain in Gaza, Israeli media reported.
Har’s son-in-law, Idan Begerano, who saw the released captives at the hospital, said the two men were thin and pale, but communicated well and were aware of their surroundings. Begerano said Har told him immediately after seeing him: “You have a birthday today, mazal tov. »
DOZENS KILLED IN STRIKES
Airstrikes supporting Israeli forces hit crowded Rafah in the middle of the night and dozens of explosions were heard around 2 a.m. Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesperson for the Israeli army. The Ministry of Health in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, said at least 67 people had been killed in the strikes.
Al-Qidra said rescuers were still sifting through the rubble; an Associated Press journalist counted at least 50 bodies at Abu Youssef al-Najjar hospital in Rafah.
Images circulating on social media from the Kuwaiti Rafah hospital showed dead or injured children. The images could not immediately be verified but were consistent with AP reporting.
The injured were seen lying on the hospital floor as doctors attempted to treat them. An injured man was on the ground with two bloodied children lying next to him. “Save the girl,” he shouted.
A young man was also seen carrying the body of an infant who he said was killed during the attacks. He said the girl, his neighbor’s daughter, was born and killed during the war.
“Let Netanyahu come and see: is this (the baby) your target bank? he said. “Why is she responsible?”
CONCERNS ABOUT RAFAH
Netanyahu said sending ground troops to Rafah was essential to achieving Israel’s war goals. Biden urged Israel to exercise extreme caution before settling. More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents are now crowded into Rafah, where hundreds of thousands live in sprawling tent camps and overcrowded U.N. shelters.
Biden’s remarks, made in a phone call with Netanyahu on Sunday evening, were its most powerful language yet on the possible operation.
Discussion on the possibility of the ceasefire agreement took up a large part of the calla senior US administration official said, and after weeks of diplomacy, a “framework” is now “pretty much” in place for a deal that could see the release of remaining hostages held by Hamas in exchange for prisoners Palestinians and an end to the fighting. .
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations, acknowledged that “gaps remain” but declined to elaborate. The official said military pressure in recent weeks on Hamas in the southern city of Khan Younis has helped bring the group closer to agreeing to a deal.
Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the call. Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV channel earlier quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying that any invasion of Rafah would “explode” the talks mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar.
Biden and Netanyahu spoke after two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said Egypt was threatening to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if troops were sent to Rafah. The Camp David Peace Accords have been a cornerstone of regional stability for more than 40 years. Egypt fears massive influx of Palestinian refugees who may never be allowed back.
Federman reported from Jerusalem; Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.