Israeli military says it rescued 2 hostages during Rafah raid; Gaza officials say dozens of Palestinians killed

Rafah, Gaza Strip – The Israeli army says it rescued two hostages from the Gaza Strip early Monday in a dramatic raid under fire, marking a small but symbolically significant success in its quest to bring home more than 100 prisoners believed to be held by the militant Hamas -group. At least 67 Palestinians were killed in airstrikes that were part of the attack, according to Palestinian hospital officials.

The raid took place in Rafathe city on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip where 1.4 million Palestinians have fled to escape fighting elsewhere in the war between Israel and Hamas. The CBS News team in Gaza reported that heavy gunfire and explosions were heard in Rafah overnight and said dozens were killed.

Army spokesman Daniel Hagari said the hostages had been held in a second-floor apartment in Rafah, under guard by Hamas gunmen both in the apartment and in nearby buildings.

Smoke rises during the Israeli bombardment of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 12, 2024.

KHATIB SAID/AFP via Getty Images

Hagari said special forces entered the under-fire apartment at 1:49 a.m. on Monday, joined a minute later by a series of airstrikes on surrounding areas. He said members of the rescue team protected the hostages with their bodies when a heavy battle broke out in several places at the same time with many Hamas gunmen.

The hostages were taken to a nearby “safe area” and given a quick medical check before being flown to a hospital in central Israel. The military said both men were in good condition.

The military identified the rescued hostages as Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, who it said were kidnapped by Hamas militants from Kibbutz Nir Yizhak during the October 7 cross-border attack that sparked the war. Netanyahu’s office said they also have Argentine citizenship. In a post on social media, Argentine President Milei said thanked Israel for the rescue.

Both were flown to Sheba Hospital and are said to be in good medical condition.

Luis Har, left, one of two hostages rescued during an operation in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, hugs loved ones at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, Israel, on February 12, 2024.

Israeli Defense Forces via AP

Har’s son-in-law, Idan Bergerano, told Israeli broadcaster Channel 13 that he and his wife were able to see the released prisoners at the hospital. He said the two men were thin and pale, but communicated well and were aware of their surroundings. Bergernano said that Har immediately told him when he saw him, “It’s your birthday today, Mazal Tov.”

Hagari said the operation was based on accurate intelligence and had been planned for some time, but rescuers were waiting for the right time to act. Netanyahu joined Israel’s military chief and other top officials as the attack took place.

They are only the second and third hostages to be safely rescued. In November, a female soldier was rescued.

More than a hundred hostages were released during a week-long ceasefire in November. Israel says about 100 hostages remain in Hamas captivity, while it believes Hamas is holding the remains of about 30 others who were killed or died in captivity on October 7. There were three hostages accidentally killed by Israeli forces after escaping their captors in December.

The remaining hostages are believed to have been dispersed and hidden in tunnels, probably under poor conditions.

Israel has made the return of all hostages one of the main objectives of the war. Netanyahu has vowed to continue Israel’s military offensive until a “total victory” that includes the destruction of Hamas’ military and government capabilities.

After Monday’s rescue efforts, Netanyahu reiterated in a statement from his office that “only continued military pressure, until complete victory (over Hamas), will result in the release of all our hostages.”

Israel intensifies military action in Rafah

Israel has described Rafah as the last remaining Hamas stronghold in Gaza after more than four months of war indicated that the ground offensive could focus soon the densely populated city.

On Sunday, the White House said President Biden had warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel should not conduct a military operation against Hamas in Rafah without a “credible and actionable” plan to protect civilians.

According to Dr. Marwan al-Hams, director of Abu Youssef al-Najjar Hospital, women and children were among those killed in the Israeli attacks, and dozens were injured. Many Palestinians in Gaza have fled to Rafah as Israeli operations against Hamas have razed other parts of the enclave.

Wounded Palestinians are taken to Kuwait Hospital for treatment following the Israeli attacks on Rafah in southern Gaza on February 12, 2024.

Abed Zagout / Anadolu via Getty Images

Abu Haloub was initially displaced when his home in northern Gaza was bombed. He fled to Rafah hoping for safety. Now he has been told to evacuate again and has no idea where to go.

“The Israeli army has left us nothing,” he said, sobbing. “Now I will even have to sell my tent.

Hamas militants killed an estimated 1,200 people in their attack on southern Israel on October 7, and kidnapped about 250 others. According to local health officials, Israel’s air and ground offensive has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians, displacing more than 80% of the population and creating a massive humanitarian crisis.

The attacks took place early Monday morning around Kuwait’s hospital in Rafah, an Associated Press journalist in Rafah said. Some of those injured in the strikes had been taken to hospital.

The Israeli army previously said it had struck “terror targets in the area of ​​Shaboura,” a district in Rafah.

Gazans sheltering in Rafah had few options amid Israeli airstrikes

Netanyahu has said sending ground troops to Rafah is essential to achieving Israel’s war aims. Mr Biden has urged Israel to exercise extreme caution before entering the country.

An estimated 1.4 million Palestinians – more than half of Gaza’s population – are now crammed into Rafah, increasing its population fivefold. Hundreds of thousands of people now live in vast tent camps and overcrowded UN shelters.

Mr. Biden’s comments, made during a phone call with Netanyahu late Sunday, were his strongest words yet on the potential operation. Mr. Biden, who last week called Israel’s military response in Gaza “overblown,” also sought “urgent and specific” steps to boost humanitarian aid. Israel’s Channel 13 TV said the conversation lasted 45 minutes.

Reuters reports that Israel on Monday called on UN aid agencies to support its efforts to clear civilians from Gaza’s war zones ahead of the planned ground assault on Rafah. “We urge the UN agencies to work together,” Reuters quoted government spokesman Eylon Levy in a briefing. ‘Don’t say it can’t be done. Work with us to find a way.’

Discussion about the potential for a ceasefire agreement took up much of the call, a senior US government official said, and after weeks of diplomacy there is now “virtually” one framework” is in place for a deal that could bring about its release. of the remaining hostages held by Hamas in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and a cessation of fighting.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations, acknowledged that “gaps remain” but declined to provide details. The official said military pressure on Hamas in the southern city of Khan Younis in recent weeks has brought the group closer to accepting a deal.

Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the call.

Israel prepares a ground offensive in Rafah

Hamas’s Al-Aqsa television station previously quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying that any invasion of Rafah would “blow up” talks between the United States, Egypt and Qatar.

Biden and Netanyahu spoke after two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said Egypt had threatened to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if troops were sent to Rafah. The Camp David Peace Accords have been a cornerstone of regional stability for more than forty years. Egypt fears a massive influx of Palestinian refugees who may never be allowed to return.

Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries have also warned of dire consequences if Israel enters Rafah.

“An Israeli offensive on Rafah would lead to an unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe and serious tensions with Egypt,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote on X. Human Rights Watch said forced displacement is a war crime.

In Rafah, some displaced people packed their belongings again. Rafat and Fedaa Abu Haloub, who fled Beit Lahia in the north earlier in the war, placed their belongings on a truck. “We don’t know where we can take him safely,” Fedaa said of their baby. “We have to move every month.”

Om Mohammad Al-Ghemry, displaced from Nuseirat, said she hoped Egypt would not allow Israel to force Palestinians to flee to Sinai “because we don’t want to leave.”

Heavy fighting continues in central Gaza and Khan Younis.

The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza said on Sunday that the bodies of 112 people killed across the territory had been taken to hospitals in the past 24 hours. The death toll stands at 28,176 since the start of the war. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and fighters, but says most of the dead were women and children.

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