Israeli special forces in a dramatic overnight raid freed two captives held by Hamas militants since the October 7 attack, in Gaza’s densely crowded southern city of Rafah near Egypt.
Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, were rescued amid an intense firefight and heavy airstrikes, then airlifted to a hospital where they were declared in good health despite more than four months in captivity.
An overnight bombing on Rafah killed around 100 people, including children, said the health ministry of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, while the Hamas government said 14 houses and three mosques were hit.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the rescue operation and vowed that “only continued military pressure, until complete victory, will result in the release of all our hostages”.
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About 130 of the original 250 captives taken by Hamas more than four months ago are still believed to be held in Gaza, although Israel presumes 29 of them are dead.
Har’s son-in-law praised the rescue of the Argentinian-Israeli men and described an emotional reunion in a hospital near Tel Aviv as “a lot of tears, hugs, not many words”.
“Luckily for us, as a family, they were saved tonight. But I must say that the job is not done,” said Idan Bejerano. “We are happy today, but we didn’t win. It’s just another step towards bringing all the other” hostages home, he continued.
As the sun rose over Rafah, local Palestinian residents surveyed the large bomb craters and rubble after the intense overnight battle.
One of them, Abu Suhhaib, said the fighting had made him feel “as if hell had opened”.
Pre-dawn hostage rescue
Weeks of talks towards a ceasefire and hostage release deal have brought no results yet, and Netanyahu has vowed to send ground troops into the crowded Rafah area to finish his goal of eliminating Hamas, sparking international alarm.
About 1.4 million displaced Palestinians have lived in shelters and tent camps, hemmed into the area near the Egyptian border as the battlefront has moved ever closer from the north.
Aid groups and foreign governments, including Israel’s key ally the United States, have voiced deep concern over the potentially disastrous consequences of expanding operations there.
US President Joe Biden told Netanyahu on Sunday that a Rafah advance should not go ahead without a “credible” plan to ensure “the safety” of people sheltering there, the White House said.
Netanyahu had told US broadcaster ABC News the Rafah operation would go ahead and continue until Hamas is eliminated, adding that Israel would provide “safe passage” to civilians trying to leave.
When pressed on where they could go, Netanyahu said: “You know, the areas that we’ve cleared north of Rafah, plenty of areas there. But, we are working out a detailed plan.”
The Israeli military early Monday announced the joint operation of the army, police and Shin Bet security service that freed the two hostages after nearly 130 days in captivity.
The men “were kidnapped by the Hamas on October 7th from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak”, it said, declaring both in “good medical condition”.
A spokesperson from the prime minister’s office said the Israeli “forces went up to the second floor of a building in Rafah, broke open the locked building door with an explosive device, shot at nearby points and successfully rescued the abductees”.
“At this point, fire was opened from the building and nearby buildings, and a prolonged battle took place, during which dozens of Hamas targets were attacked from the air in order to allow the force to leave the building.”
The Palestinian foreign ministry condemned what it called a “massacre” in Rafah and accused Netanyahu of “a mentality of revenge”.
The support group Hostages and Missing Families Forum warned that “time is running out for the remaining hostages held captive by Hamas”.
“Their lives are at risk with each passing moment. The Israeli government must exhaust every option on the table to release them.”