Israel freed two Israeli-Argentine hostages in Rafah on Monday under cover of airstrikes that local health officials said killed 67 Palestinians and wounded dozens in southern Gaza City, the last refuge of about a million displaced civilians.
A joint operation by the Israeli army, domestic security agency Shin Bet and the Special Police Unit in Rafah freed Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Hare, 70, the army said.
The two men were abducted by Hamas from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak on October 7, the military said, among about 250 people Israel says were captured during the militant raid that sparked its war in Gaza.
“We have been working on this operation for a long time,” said Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht. “We were waiting for the right conditions.”
The hostages were being held on the second floor of a building breached with explosives during the raid, where there was a heavy exchange of gunfire with surrounding buildings, Hecht said. A photo released to the media shows them in a hospital, sitting on a couch next to relatives.
Argentina’s government thanked Israel for rescuing the two men, who it said were dual Argentine nationals.
Israel’s military said its airstrikes coincided with the raid to allow the extraction of its forces.
Gaza’s health ministry said 67 people were killed and the number could rise as rescue operations are underway. A photo from the scene showed a vast area of rubble where buildings had been destroyed.
Palestinians in Rafah said two mosques and several houses were hit in more than an hour of strikes by Israeli warplanes, tanks and ships, causing widespread panic among people who were sleeping.
“It was the worst night since we arrived in Rafah last month. Death was so close as shells and rockets fell 200 meters from our tent camp,” Gaza businessman Emad, a father of six, told the Reuters using a chat app.
Some feared Israel had launched a long-feared ground offensive on the city, where more than a million people displaced by Israel’s war on Hamas have fled with nowhere else to go.
“Everyone said it was a surprise ground attack. My family and I said our last prayers,” Emad said.
A relative of one of the hostages said he had seen both freed men in hospital and found them “a little frail, a little thin, a little pale” but overall in good condition.
Reading Israel’s Gaza Gambit
Idan Bejerano, Hare’s son-in-law, said the hostages were both asleep when “within a minute” commandos were in the building covering them as they fought off the kidnappers.
He was being treated at Israel’s Sheba Hospital, said director Professor Arnon Afek.
Hamas said the attack on Rafah was a continuation of a “genocidal war” and forced displacement efforts that Israel has made against the Palestinian people.
Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians in response to an October 7 Hamas raid on Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories along the strip that killed 1,200 Israeli settlers. At least 250 settlers were taken hostage in the attack.
Airstrike kills 15 in Central Gaza
US President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday that Israel should not launch a military operation in Rafah without a credible plan to ensure the safety of the roughly 1 million people there, the White House said.
Aid groups say an attack on Rafah would be devastating. It is the last relatively safe place in an enclave destroyed by Israel’s military offensive.
Egypt has reinforced its border with the city, saying it fears Gazans will be pushed back and never return.
An Israeli official said people would be evacuated further north, but its forces were also active in central Gaza. Palestinian medics said 15 people were killed in an airstrike in the central city of Deir al-Ballah.
Palestinian father Emad said the world needed to act.
“The whole world condemned Israel’s plans to invade Rafah. They destroy the city before they invade it, how is the world now? Is it just worried?” he said.
Biden and Netanyahu spoke for about 45 minutes, days after the US leader said Israel’s military response to the Gaza Strip was “excessive” and expressed grave concern over the growing civilian death toll in Gaza.
Netanyahu’s office said it has instructed the military to develop a plan to evacuate Rafah and destroy four Hamas battalions it says are deployed there.
Netanyahu said in an interview broadcast on Sunday that “enough” of the 132 remaining Israeli hostages held in Gaza were alive to justify Israel’s war in the region.
Hamas-run Aqsa TV on Sunday quoted a senior Hamas leader as saying that any Israeli ground attack on Rafah would “blow up” the hostage exchange negotiations.
Egypt warned on Sunday of “terrible consequences” of a possible Israeli military attack on Rafah.
“Egypt called for the need to unite all international and regional efforts to prevent the targeting of the Palestinian city of Rafah,” its foreign ministry said in a statement.
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