Israeli special operations forces stormed a building in the southern Gaza city of Rafah early Monday to free two hostages held by Hamas, the military said, as Israel launched a wave of attacks overnight that killed dozens of Palestinians in Rafah, according to with the Gaza Ministry of Health. .
The operations were greeted with excitement in Israel and sadness and foreboding in the Gaza Strip, where more than a million Palestinians have flocked to Rafah, fleeing their homes and seeking refuge from Israeli military action further north. Palestinians feared the raid – and the accompanying death toll – foreshadowed a more protracted Israeli operation to capture Rafah.
The overnight rescue operation marked only the second time Israeli forces said they had rescued prisoners in Gaza since the war began in October. The fate of more than 100 hostages captured when the war began on October 7 has become one of the country’s highest priorities, along with the defeat of Hamas.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has signaled that Israeli ground forces will enter Rafah with the aim of eliminating Hamas battalions there, although the exact timing is unclear. The prospect of street fighting inside the bustling city, which is surrounded by a closed Egyptian border, has sparked global concern about the risks to civilians who say they have nowhere else to flee.
The hostage rescue showed Israel’s determination to continue its offensive despite criticism from the United States and other allies and pressure to reduce civilian casualties and damage. President Biden on Thursday called Israel’s campaign “over the top” and said the suffering of innocent people “must stop.”
At 1:49 a.m. Monday, Israeli special forces soldiers stormed a building where the two hostages were being held, Vice Admiral Daniel Hagari, the army’s chief spokesman, told a news conference. About a minute later, Israeli forces fired into nearby buildings in an attempt to disrupt Hamas communications and allow soldiers to safely remove the hostages, he said. He also said Israeli warplanes had fired on Hamas targets in the area.
Drone footage later released by the Israeli military appeared to show about a dozen Israeli soldiers entering a building on foot from a flat-roofed street lined with single-family homes. Other footage showed an explosion in the building next door, caused by what the Israeli military said was an Israeli strike.
Images captured by Palestinian photographers after the attack showed several heavily damaged concrete buildings, one of which was reduced to rubble. Both the Palestinian images and the Israeli video appear to have been taken from the same location, alongside several rows of tents.
The Ministry of Health in Gaza announced that at least 67 people were killed overnight in Israeli strikes in Rafah. News agencies reported deadly attacks on two mosques in Rafah.
Neither the Israeli account nor the tally reported by Gaza’s health ministry — which does not distinguish between civilian and combatant deaths — could be independently verified.
Ziad Obeid, a customs official who had taken refuge in Rafah, described being woken at 2 a.m. by a barrage of explosions so intense it was “like we were in the middle of the day, not the night.” He added: “It was a horrible night.”
The Israeli military said soldiers forced their way into a second-floor apartment to rescue the two hostages, Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Luis Har, 70.
The military said the subsequent strikes were intended to prevent Hamas commanders in the surrounding area from contacting the hostage guards and to complete “an operational picture” of the raid.
The army did not reveal how the commandos got to the house, but Israeli media reported that they blew open the door with an explosive device and that the hostages were taken away by helicopter.
The operation was welcomed in Israel, where the fate of the hostages has exacerbated social divisions and trauma.
Some Israelis want their government to agree to a deal that would free the remaining hostages in exchange for an end to the war, fearing that the Israeli offensive puts the captives at risk.
The rescue was a major boost for Mr Netanyahu, who said in a statement on Monday that “only continued military pressure, until total victory, will bring about the release of all our hostages”.
Mr. Netanyahu, pledging to end Hamas’ control of Gaza, ignored warnings – from the United States, the United Nations, aid groups and others that an advance on Rafah would be devastating for civilians and risk exacerbating a disaster already unfolding. residents are running low on food, clean water and medicine.
Mr. Netanyahu has ordered the military to draw up plans to remove civilians from Rafah, but aid groups and others say there is nowhere for them to go. On Sunday, he promised to offer Palestinians safe passage to the northern Gaza Strip ahead of the invasion of Rafah, though he did not give details.
Yan Zhuang, Gabby Sobelman and Andrés R. Martínez contributed to the report.