Israel rescues 2 hostages in Rafah under cover of air strikes. Gaza health officials say dozens of Palestinians were killed
- Air strikes on Rafah were launched to allow hostage extraction, Israeli military says
- Israel has described southern city as the last remaining Hamas stronghold in Gaza
Israel launched a special forces operation that freed two Israeli hostages in Rafah amid air strikes early on Monday, which local health officials said killed and wounded dozens of people in the southern Gaza City.
The health ministry in Gaza said at least 67 Palestinians were killed in the attack.
A joint operation by the Israel Defence Force (IDF), Israel’s domestic Shin Bet security service and the Special Police Unit in Rafah freed Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, the Israeli military said.
The two men, who were kidnapped by Hamas from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak on October 7, were in good condition and taken to the Tel Hashomer Medical Complex, the military said.
“It was a very complex operation,” Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hecht said. “We’ve been working a long time on this operation. We were waiting for the right conditions.”
The hostages were being held on the second floor of a building that was breached with an explosive charge during the raid, which saw heavy exchanges of gunfire with surrounding buildings, Hecht said.
At the same time, an air strike was carried out to allow the forces to be extracted, he said.
The hostages were airlifted to Sheba Medical Centre in central Israel. They are just the second and third hostage to be rescued safely; a female soldier was rescued in November.
Har’s son-in-law, Idan Begerano, told reporters that he and his wife were able to see the released captives at the hospital. He said the two men were thin and pale, but communicating well and aware of their surroundings.
The air strikes caused widespread panic in Rafah as many people were asleep when the strikes started, said residents contacted by Reuters using a chat app. Some feared Israel had begun its ground offensive into Rafah.
Israeli planes, tanks and ships took part in the strikes, with two mosques and several houses hit, according to residents.
The Israeli military said on Monday it had conducted a “series of strikes” on southern Gaza that have now “concluded”, without providing further details.
Before previous assaults on Gaza cities, Israel’s military has ordered civilians to leave without preparing any specific evacuation plan.
Aid agencies say an assault on Rafah would be catastrophic. It is the last relatively safe place in an enclave devastated by Israel’s military offensive.
Biden and Netanyahu spoke for about 45 minutes, days after the US leader said Israel’s military response in the Gaza Strip had been “over the top” and expressed grave concern over the rising civilian death toll in the Palestinian enclave.
Netanyahu’s office has said that it had ordered the military to develop a plan to evacuate Rafah and destroy four Hamas battalions it says are deployed there.
Hamas militants killed 1,200 people in southern Israel and abducted at least 250 in their October 7 incursion, according to Israeli tallies.
Israel has responded with a military assault on the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
Netanyahu said in an interview aired on Sunday that “enough” of the 132 remaining Israeli hostages held in Gaza were alive to justify Israel’s war in the region.
Hamas-run Aqsa Television on Sunday quoted a senior Hamas leader as saying any Israeli ground offensive in Rafah would “blow up” the hostage-exchange negotiations.
Egypt warned on Sunday of “dire consequences” of a potential Israeli military assault on Rafah, which lies near its border. “Egypt called for the necessity of uniting all international and regional efforts to prevent the targeting of the Palestinian city of Rafah,” its foreign ministry added in a statement.
One Egyptian parliamentarian, Mostafa Bakry, widely seen as close to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, said Cairo had threatened to take the extraordinary step of suspending its 45-year-old peace treaty with Israel if it sends troops into Rafah.
Additional reporting by Associated Press and Bloomberg