Israeli special operations forces raided a building in the southern Gaza city of Rafah early Monday to free two hostages held by Hamas, the military said, as Israel launched a wave of attacks overnight that killed dozens of Palestinians in Rafah, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.
The operations were greeted with joy in Israel and grief and foreboding in the Gaza Strip, where more than a million Palestinians have gathered in Rafah, fleeing their homes and seeking refuge from Israeli military actions further north. Palestinians feared that the attack – and the resulting death toll – presaged a longer Israeli operation to capture Rafah.
The overnight rescue operation marked only the second time Israeli forces said they had rescued captives in Gaza since the war began in October. The fate of more than 100 hostages captured at the start of the war on October 7 has become one of the country’s top priorities, along with the defeat of Hamas.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has signaled that Israeli ground forces will enter Rafah with the goal of eliminating Hamas battalions there, although the precise timing is unclear. The prospect of street battles inside the populous city, surrounded by a closed Egyptian border, has created global alarm about the risks to civilians who say they have nowhere else to flee.
The hostage rescue showed Israel’s determination to press ahead with its offensive despite criticism from the United States and other allies, and pressure to reduce civilian casualties and destruction. President Biden on Thursday called Israel’s campaign “overblown” and said the suffering of innocent people “has to end.”
At 1:49 a.m. Monday, Israeli special forces soldiers stormed a building where the two hostages were being held, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the army’s chief spokesman, said at a news conference. About a minute later, Israeli forces fired on nearby buildings in an effort to disrupt Hamas communications and allow soldiers to safely remove the hostages, he said. He also said that Israeli warplanes had fired on Hamas targets in the area.
Buzz images Footage later released by the Israeli military appeared to show about a dozen Israeli soldiers entering a building on foot from a street lined with flat-roofed single-family homes. Other images It showed an explosion in the building next door, caused by what the Israeli military said was an Israeli attack.
Images captured by Palestinian photographers after the attack showed several heavily damaged concrete buildings, one of them reduced to rubble. Both the Palestinian images and the Israeli video appeared to have been taken from the same location, next to several rows of tents.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said at least 67 people had been killed overnight in Israeli strikes in Rafah. Media reported deadly attacks on two mosques in Rafah.
Neither the Israeli account nor the casualty toll reported by the Gaza Ministry of Health (which does not distinguish between civilian and combatant deaths) could be independently verified.
Ziad Obeid, a customs official who had fled to Rafah, described being awakened at 2 a.m. by a burst of explosions so bright it was “as if we were in broad daylight, not night.” And he added: “It was a horrible night.”
The Israeli military said soldiers forced their way into a second-floor apartment to rescue the two hostages, Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70.
The military said the subsequent attacks were aimed at preventing Hamas commanders in the surrounding area from contacting the hostage guards and completing “an operational picture” of the raid.
The military did not reveal how the commandos arrived at the house, but Israeli media reported that they forced a door with an explosive and that the hostages were evacuated by helicopter.
The operation was greeted with joy in Israel, where the fate of the hostages has exacerbated social divisions and trauma.
Some Israelis want their government to agree to a deal that frees the remaining hostages in exchange for ending the war, fearing that the Israeli offensive will put captives in danger.
The rescue was a big boost for Netanyahu, who said in a statement Monday that “only continued military pressure, until complete victory, will achieve the release of all our hostages.”
Netanyahu, who has vowed to end Hamas control of Gaza, has ignored warnings – from the United States, the United Nations, aid groups and others – that an advance on Rafah would be devastating for civilians and risk exacerbate a catastrophe that is already unfolding, with residents running out of food, clean water and medicine.
Netanyahu has ordered the military to draw up plans to evacuate civilians from Rafah, but aid groups and others say they have nowhere left to go. On Sunday he promised to offer Palestinians safe passage to northern areas of Gaza before an invasion of Rafah, although he did not offer details.
Yan Zhuang, Gabby Sobelman and Andrés R. Martínez contributed with reports.