Israeli forces rescued two hostages early Monday, stormed a heavily guarded apartment in the Gaza Strip and opened fire on the hostages in a dramatic raid that was a small but symbolically significant victory for Israel. Heavy airstrikes covering the operation killed at least 67 Palestinians, according to health officials in the troubled territory.
The plight of the hostages has deeply shaken Israelis, and the rescue of densely populated Rafah briefly lifted the spirits of a country still reeling from last year’s cross-border raid by Hamas that started the war. Israel has described Rafah — a city on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip where 1.4 million Palestinians have fled fighting elsewhere — as the last remaining Hamas stronghold in the territory and has signaled that its ground offensive will soon target the city .
In Gaza, the operation unleashed another tragedy in a war that has killed 28,340 Palestinians in the territory, displaced more than 80% of the population and caused a massive humanitarian crisis.
More than 12,300 Palestinian minors – children and adolescents – have been killed in the conflict, the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said on Monday. About 8,400 women were also among those killed. That is, minors make up about 43% of the dead and girls and minors together make up 73% of the dead.
The ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians, provided the breakdown at the request of The Associated Press. Israel claims to have killed around 10,000 Hamas fighters.
A young refugee couple in Gaza is relying on Canada as they prepare for a difficult birth
In a cross-border raid by Hamas on October 7, an estimated 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed, and the militants captured 250 people, according to Israeli authorities.
Israel says about 100 hostages remain in Hamas captivity after dozens were freed during a ceasefire in November. Hamas also holds the remains of about 30 others who were killed on October 7 or died in captivity.
The government has made freeing the more than 100 remaining hostages a major goal of its battle, along with destroying Hamas’ military and governance capabilities. But as the conflict drags on, now in its fifth month, their freedom remains elusive and rifts emerge in Israel over how best to end their ordeal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that continued military pressure would lead to the hostages’ freedom – a position he reiterated on Monday – even as other senior officials disputed this, saying a deal would only way to ensure their release.
Get the latest National news. Sent to your email, every day.
A DRAMATIC RAID
Israeli military spokesman Read Adm. Daniel Hagari special forces entered an apartment on the second floor in Rafah under fire at 1:49 am Monday, which was accompanied a minute later by airstrikes in the surrounding areas. He said the hostages were being guarded by armed Hamas militants and that members of the rescue team protected the hostages with their bodies as a fierce battle broke out in several areas simultaneously with the armed Hamas
The army identified the rescuers as Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, who were abducted by Hamas militants from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak on October 7. Netanyahu’s office said they also have Argentinian citizenship.
The Palestinians are preparing for an all-out Israeli offensive in Rafah
The hostages were taken to the Sheba Medical Center in central Israel, and their condition was reported to be good. They were the second and third captives who were safely rescued; a female soldier was rescued in November.
The rescue, which Hagari said was based on accurate intelligence and planned for some time, was a morale booster for the Israelis but a small step toward freeing the remaining captives, who are believed to be scattered and hidden among the tunnel, probably in poor condition.
Har’s son-in-law Idan Begerano, who saw the freed hostages at the hospital, said the two men were thin and pale, but well-spoken and aware of their surroundings.
Begerano said Har said to him immediately upon seeing him: “You have a birthday today, mazal tov.” The men, dressed in sweatsuits, shared a long, tearful embrace with their relatives at the hospital, according to video released by Netanyahu’s office.
DOZENS DIE IN STRIKES
Airstrikes supporting Israeli forces hit Rafah in the middle of the night and dozens of explosions were heard around 2 a.m. Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesman for the Health Ministry, said at least 67 people, including women and children. , were killed in the strikes.
Al-Qidra said rescuers were still searching the rubble; an Associated Press reporter counted at least 50 bodies at Abu Youssef al-Najjar Hospital in Rafah.
Mohamed Zoghroub, a Palestinian living in Rafah, said he saw a black jeep speeding near the Shaboura refugee camp in the town followed by clashes and heavy airstrikes.
Ready to move forward? When daylight saving time starts 2024 in Canada
Could the way Canadians park their cars be part of the housing crisis?
“We found ourselves running with our children, from airstrikes, in every direction,” he said, speaking from an area flattened by heavy strikes overnight.
Netanyahu orders evacuation plan for Rafah ahead of expanded ground offensive in Gaza
Footage circulating on social media from Rafah’s Kuwaiti hospital showed dead or injured children. The footage could not be immediately verified but is consistent with AP reporting.
A young man is seen carrying the body of a baby he says was killed in the attacks. He said the girl, his neighbor’s daughter, was born and killed during the conf;lict.
“Let Netanyahu go and see: Is this one of your designated targets?” he said.
REMINISCENCES OF RAFAH
Netanyahu said sending ground troops to Rafah was essential to meeting Israel’s goals. On Sunday, the White House said President Joe Biden warned Netanyahu that Israel should not conduct a military operation against Hamas in Rafah without a “credible and enforceable” plan to protect civilians.
More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million population is now crammed into Rafah, where hundreds of thousands live in sprawling tent camps and overcrowded UN shelters.
Biden’s remarks, made in a phone call with Netanyahu, were his strongest language yet on the possible operation.
The UN chief promised immediate action on any new information on ‘Hamas infiltration’ of the UN
Discussion of the potential for a cease-fire agreement took up most of the call, a senior US administration official said, and after weeks of diplomacy, a “framework” that is now “pretty much” for in a deal that could see the release of remaining hostages held by Hamas in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and a cessation of hostilities.
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 helped bring the group closer to accepting a deal.
Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the call. Hamas’ Al-Aqsa television station earlier quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying any raid on Rafah would “blow up” talks brokered by the United States, Egypt and Qatar.
Biden and Netanyahu spoke after two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said Egypt had threatened to suspend the peace accord with Israel if troops were sent to Rafah.
Federman reported from Jerusalem and Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.