Israeli forces rescue 2 hostages in dramatic Gaza raid that kills at least 67 Palestinians
Israeli forces rescued two hostages early Monday, storming a heavily guarded apartment in a densely packed town in the Gaza Strip as airstrikes carried out to cover the raid killed at least 67 Palestinians, including women and children.
The rescue in Rafah briefly lifted the spirits of Israelis shaken by the plight of the dozens of hostages held by Hamas. The nation is still reeling from the militant group’s cross-border raid last year that started the war.
The overnight bombardment brought devastation in Rafah, which is packed with some 1.4 million people, most of whom fled their homes elsewhere in Gaza to escape fighting. Associated Press video showed a large area of flattened houses, tattered tents and lines of bloodied bodies brought into nearby hospitals.
More than 12,300 Palestinian children and young teens have been killed in the conflict, the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said Monday. About 8,400 women were also among those killed. That means children and young teens make up about 43% of the dead; women along with minors make up three-quarters.
The ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians, provided the breakdown at the request of the Associated Press. Israel claims to have killed about 10,000 Hamas fighters but has not provided evidence.
Teenage friends Angelina, who is Palestinian, and Adar, who is Jewish Israeli, talk about the Hamas attacks on Israel and Israel’s war on Gaza. ‘It’s OK to disagree.’
Israel has described Rafah as the last remaining Hamas stronghold in the territory and signaled that it may soon target the town on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip with ground attacks.
Israel says about 100 hostages remain in Hamas captivity after dozens were freed during a cease-fire in November. Hamas also holds the remains of roughly 30 others who were either killed on Oct. 7 or died in captivity.
The government has made freeing the more than 100 remaining hostages a top aim of its war, along with destroying Hamas’ military and governing capabilities. But as the fighting drags on, their freedom remains elusive and rifts have emerged in Israel over how to retrieve them.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says persistent military pressure will bring about the captives’ freedom, even as other top officials have called on the government to make another deal with Hamas.
A dramatic raid
Israeli military spokesman Rear 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 being guarded by armed Hamas militants and that members of the rescue team shielded the hostages with their bodies as a heavy battle erupted.
The army identified those rescued as Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, abducted by Hamas militants from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak on Oct. 7. They also hold Argentinian citizenship. They are among just three hostages to be rescued; a female soldier was rescued in November.
More than three months into the Israel-Hamas war, the families of hostages held in Gaza have grown disillusioned with Israel’s military operations.
The rescue, which Hagari said was based on precise intelligence and planned for some time, is a morale booster for Israelis but a small step toward winning the release of the remaining hostages, who are believed to be spread out and hidden in tunnels.
Har’s son-in-law, Idan Begerano, who saw the released captives at the hospital where they were airlifted, said the two men were thin and pale, but communicating well and aware of their surroundings.
Begerano said Har told him immediately upon seeing him: “You have a birthday today, mazel tov.” The men, wearing sweatsuits, held long, tearful embraces with their relatives at the hospital, according to video released by Netanyahu’s office.
Dozens killed in strikes
The airstrikes hit jam-packed Rafah in the middle of the night, and dozens of explosions could be heard around 2 a.m. Ashraf al Qidra, spokesman for the Health Ministry, said at least 67 people, including women and children, were killed in the strikes.
Al Qidra said rescuers were still searching the rubble; an Associated Press journalist counted at least 50 bodies at the Abu Youssef Najjar Hospital in Rafah.
Mohamed Zoghroub, a Palestinian living in Rafah, said he saw a black jeep speeding near the Shaboura refugee camp in the town, followed by clashes and heavy airstrikes.
Experts say Israel’s deadly raid on a West Bank hospital may have violated international laws, including a ban on combatants posing as doctors or civilians.
“We found ourselves running with our children, from the airstrikes, in every direction,” he said, speaking from an area flattened by the bombardment.
Video on social media from Rafah’s Kuwaiti hospital showed dead or wounded children. The video could not immediately be verified but was consistent with AP reporting.
A young man can be seen carrying the body of an infant who he said was killed in the attacks. He said the girl, the daughter of his neighbor, was born and killed during the war.
“Let Netanyahu come and see: Is this one of your designated targets?” he said.
The International Court of Justice’s ruling comes at an early stage in South Africa’s case alleging that Israel’s actions in Gaza amount to genocide.
Concerns about Rafah
Netanyahu has said sending ground troops into Rafah is essential to meeting Israel’s war goals. On Sunday, the White House said President Biden had warned Netanyahu that Israel should not conduct a military operation against Hamas in Rafah without a “credible and executable” plan to protect civilians.
More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million population is now crammed 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, were his most forceful language yet on the possible operation.
Discussion of the potential for a cease-fire agreement took up much of the call, a senior U.S. 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 Palestinian prisoners and a halt to fighting.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss negotiations, acknowledged that “gaps remain,” but declined to give details. The official said military pressure on Hamas in the southern city of Khan Yunis in recent weeks helped bring the group closer to accepting a deal.
Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the call. Hamas’ Al Aqsa television station earlier quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying any invasion of Rafah would “blow up” the talks mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar.
Biden and Netanyahu spoke after two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said Egypt threatened to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if troops are sent into Rafah.
Jobain reported from Rafah, Federman from Jerusalem and Magdy from Cairo. AP writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.