Israeli forces rescued two hostages early Monday, storming a heavily guarded apartment in the Gaza Strip and extracting the captives under fire in a dramatic raid that was a modest but symbolically significant success for Israel. Heavy airstrikes covering the operation killed at least 67 Palestinians, according to health officials in the besieged territory.
The fate of the hostages shook Israelis to their core, and the rescue in the densely populated city of Rafah briefly lifted the morale of a nation still reeling from last year’s Hamas cross-border raid that sparked the war. Israel has described Rafah – a town on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip where 1.4 million Palestinians have fled fighting elsewhere – as the last Hamas stronghold in the territory and signaled that its ground offensive could soon target the city.
In Gaza, the operation triggered another tragedy in a war that has killed 28,340 Palestinians in the territory, displaced more than 80 percent of the population and sparked a massive humanitarian crisis.
More than 12,300 Palestinian minors – children and young adolescents – have been killed in the conflict, Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry said Monday. Around 8,400 women were also among those killed. This means that minors account for approximately 43% of deaths and women and minors together account for 73% of deaths.
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.
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In the Hamas cross-border raid on October 7, around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed and the militants captured 250 people, according to Israeli authorities.
Israel says around 100 hostages are still being held by Hamas after dozens were freed during a ceasefire in November. Hamas also holds the remains of around 30 other people who were killed on October 7 or died in captivity.
The government has made the release of the more than 100 remaining hostages a priority objective of its conflict, as has the destruction of Hamas’s military and government capabilities. But as the fighting drags on, now in its fifth month, their freedom remains uncertain and divisions have emerged in Israel over the best approach to ending their ordeal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that continued military pressure would allow the captives to be released – a position he reiterated on Monday – even as other top officials opposed it, saying a deal was the only way to obtain their release.
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A DRAMATIC RAID
Israeli army spokesperson Read Adm. Daniel Hagari, said special forces broke into a second-floor apartment in Rafah under fire at 1:49 a.m. Monday, accompanied a minute later by airstrikes on surrounding areas. He said the hostages were guarded by armed Hamas militants and that members of the rescue team protected the hostages with their bodies as a violent battle broke out simultaneously in several locations with Hamas gunmen.
The army identified the rescued people as Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, who were kidnapped by Hamas militants at Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak on October 7. Netanyahu’s office said they also held Argentine citizenship.
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The hostages were flown to Sheba Medical Center in central Israel and are said to be in good condition. These are only the second and third hostages to be safely rescued; a female soldier was rescued in November.
The rescue, which Hagari said was based on accurate intelligence and planned for some time, is a morale booster for Israelis but a small step toward freeing the remaining hostages, who are believed to be scattered and hidden in tunnels, probably in poor condition.
Har’s son-in-law, Idan Begerano, who saw the released captives at the hospital, said the two men were thin and pale, but communicated well and were aware of their surroundings.
Begerano said Har told him immediately after seeing him: “You have a birthday today, mazal tov. » The men, dressed in tracksuits, held long, tearful embraces with their loved ones at the hospital, according to a video released by Netanyahu’s office.
DOZENS KILLED IN STRIKES
Airstrikes that supported Israeli forces hit crowded Rafah in the middle of the night and dozens of explosions were heard around 2 a.m. Ashraf al-Qidra, a 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 sifting through the rubble; an Associated Press journalist 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 town’s Shaboura refugee camp, followed by clashes and heavy airstrikes.
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“We found ourselves running with our children, facing airstrikes, in all directions,” he said, speaking from an area razed by heavy strikes overnight.
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Images circulating on social media from the Kuwaiti Rafah hospital showed dead or injured children. The images could not immediately be verified but were consistent with AP reporting.
A young man can be seen carrying the body of a child who he says was killed during the attacks. He said the girl, his neighbor’s daughter, was born and killed during the conflict.
“Let Netanyahu come and see: is this (the infant) one of your designated targets? he said.
CONCERNS ABOUT RAFAH
Netanyahu said sending ground troops to Rafah was essential to achieving Israel’s goals. On Sunday, the White House said President Joe Biden warned Netanyahu that Israel should not carry out 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 residents are now crowded into Rafah, where hundreds of thousands live in vast tent camps and crowded UN shelters.
Biden’s remarks, made in a phone call with Netanyahu, were his strongest language yet on a possible operation.
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Discussions about the possibility of a ceasefire agreement took up much of the call, a senior U.S. administration official said, and after weeks of diplomacy, a “framework” is now ” pretty much” in place for a deal that could see release. remaining hostages held by Hamas in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and an end to the fighting.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations, acknowledged that “gaps remain” but declined to elaborate. The official said military pressure in recent weeks on Hamas in the southern city of Khan Younis has helped bring the group closer to agreeing to a deal.
Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the call. Hamas’ Al-Aqsa TV channel earlier quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying that any invasion of Rafah would “blow up” talks mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar.
Biden and Netanyahu spoke after two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said Egypt was threatening to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if troops were sent to Rafah.
Federman reported from Jerusalem and Magdy from Cairo. Associated Press writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.