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The Israeli military said it had rescued two of the hostages seized by Hamas after a “complex operation” on Monday involving special forces in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.
The Israeli raid comes amid growing fears internationally of a wider military incursion into a city teeming with more than 1mn displaced Gazans, which Israeli officials claim is the last major population centre controlled by Hamas.
The two rescued Israeli hostages, Fernando Simon Marman, 61, and Louis Har, 70, who were taken from the Nir Yitzhak kibbutz by the Palestinian militant group during its October 7 attack, were in good medical condition in an Israeli hospital, Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Richard Hecht said.
The rescue operation had involved several of Israel’s elite military, intelligence and police counterterror units, which raided the second floor of a building in the centre of Rafah in which the hostages were held, Hecht said. Israel also launched air strikes on the surrounding buildings, including on a local Hamas battalion and other militant command and control sites.
Health officials in Gaza said more than 60 Palestinians were killed during the overnight Rafah strikes. The IDF estimated that at least three of the militants who were holding the hostages were killed during the raid.
“This was a complex operation . . . We were waiting for the right conditions,” Hecht said.
On Monday morning, people congregated around the house in the Shaboura area of Rafah where the hostages are believed to have been held. The building suffered extensive damage, with the bombardment also leaving several large craters on the street. Many nearby buildings had been levelled to the ground.
“It was a terrifying night,” said witness Abu Mahmoud, 39, who lives nearby. “I saw missiles raining down, fires breaking out and rubble flying everywhere. So many missiles fell.”
Reem Mahmoud, a 29-year-old displaced to an overcrowded Rafah refugee camp with her family, saw the raid unfold and then began dismantling their tents and collecting belongings. The family planned to escape north to Deir al-Balah but were unsure whether they would find transport. “Many families have taken down their tents like us since daybreak. We’re trying to escape death but it’s everywhere,” she said.
The Turkish foreign ministry said it was “extremely concerned by Israel’s escalating attacks” in Rafah. “We consider this operation as part of a plan to expel the people of Gaza from their own land,” the ministry said. It added: “We call on the international community, in particular the UN Security Council, to take the necessary steps to stop Israel.”
At least 1,200 Israelis were killed and about 250 more taken hostage during the October 7 attack that sparked the war, according to Israeli figures. More than 100 of the hostages were released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners during a week-long ceasefire in November.
According to Israeli officials, 134 hostages remain in Gaza, of whom at least 31 have been confirmed dead by the IDF. Despite numerous efforts, the Israeli military had previously successfully managed to rescue only one captive — a soldier in late October.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the “daring action” to release the hostages, adding: “Only continued military pressure, until total victory, will bring about the release of all of our hostages.”
More than 28,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza during the past four months of war, according to health officials in the Hamas-controlled territory. About 80 per cent of the enclave’s 2.3mn residents are estimated to have been displaced from their homes, according to international aid organisations. More than half are now sheltering in Rafah.
The fate of the city has increased strains between Netanyahu’s government and US President Joe Biden’s administration.
In a call between Biden and Netanyahu on Sunday, the US president demanded that any large-scale military operation in Rafah “should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for the safety of and support for the more than 1mn people sheltering there”.
Netanyahu has in recent days made clear that victory over Hamas would require dismantling the militant group’s remaining four battalions in Rafah and severing its control over the border crossing with Egypt that is the besieged strip’s commercial and humanitarian lifeline.
“Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying, ‘Lose the war, keep Hamas there’,” Netanyahu said in an interview with ABC News on Sunday.