Israeli forces rescued two hostages early Monday, storming a heavily guarded apartment in the Gaza Strip and removing the captives under fire in a dramatic raid that was a small but symbolically significant success for Israel. The intense airstrikes that provided cover for the operation killed at least 67 Palestinians, according to health officials in the besieged territory.
The plight of the hostages has deeply shaken Israelis, and the rescue in densely populated Rafah briefly lifted the spirits of a nation still reeling from the cross-border Hamas incursion last year 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 noted that its offensive ground could 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 unleashed a massive humanitarian crisis.
More than 12,300 Palestinian minors (children and adolescents) have been killed in the conflict, the Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza said Monday. Some 8,400 women were also among those killed. That means that minors represent around 43% of the dead and women and minors together represent 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 about 10,000 Hamas fighters.
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In Hamas’ cross-border raid on October 7, an estimated 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed and 250 people were taken captive by the militants, according to Israeli authorities.
Israel says about 100 hostages remain held captive by Hamas after dozens were freed during a ceasefire in November. Hamas also holds the remains of approximately 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 primary objective of its conflict, along with the destruction of Hamas’s military and governance capabilities. But as the fighting drags on, now in its fifth month, their freedom remains elusive and divisions have emerged in Israel over how best to end their ordeal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that persistent military pressure will achieve the captives’ freedom – a position he repeated on Monday – even as other senior officials have opposed this, saying a deal is the only way to secure his release.
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A DRAMATIC RAID
Israeli military spokesman Read Adm. Daniel Hagari said special forces stormed 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 an intense battle broke out in several places at once with Hamas gunmen.
The military identified those rescued as Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, kidnapped by Hamas militants at Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak on October 7. Netanyahu’s office said they also have Argentine citizenship.
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The hostages were flown to Sheba Medical Center in central Israel and were reported to be in good condition. They are only the second and third hostages rescued safely; a female soldier was rescued in November.
The rescue, which Hagari said was based on accurate intelligence and had been planned for some time, is a morale boost for the Israelis but a small step toward freeing the remaining hostages, who are believed to be scattered and hiding. in tunnels, probably in poor condition.
Har’s son-in-law, Idan Begerano, who saw the freed 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 your birthday today, mazal tov.” The men, dressed in sweatshirts, tearfully embraced relatives at the hospital, according to a video released by Netanyahu’s office.
DOZENS DEAD IN STRIKES
Airstrikes supporting Israeli forces hit crowded Rafah in the middle of the night and dozens of explosions could be heard around 2 a.m. Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra said at least 67 people, including Women and children. , died in the attacks.
Al-Qidra said rescuers were still searching through the rubble; An Associated Press journalist counted at least 50 bodies at the Abu Youssef al-Najjar hospital in Rafah.
Mohamed Zoghroub, a Palestinian living in Rafah, said he saw a black jeep speeding near the city’s Shaboura refugee camp, followed by clashes and heavy airstrikes.
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“We found ourselves running with our children, because of the airstrikes, in all directions,” he said, speaking from an area devastated by heavy attacks overnight.
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Images circulating on social media from the Kuwaiti hospital in Rafah showed dead or injured children. The images could not immediately be verified, but they were consistent with AP reports.
A young man can be seen carrying the body of a baby who he said died in the attacks. He said the girl, her neighbor’s daughter, was born and killed during the conflict.
“Let Netanyahu come and see: is this (baby) one of his designated targets?” he said.
CONCERNS ABOUT RAFAH
Netanyahu has said sending ground troops to Rafah is essential to meeting Israel’s goals. On Sunday, the White House said President Joe Biden had warned Netanyahu that Israel should not carry out a military operation against Hamas in Rafah without a “credible and executable” plan to protect civilians.
More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people are now crammed into Rafah, where hundreds of thousands live in sprawling tent camps and crowded UN shelters.
Biden’s comments, made in a phone call with Netanyahu, were his most forceful language yet on the possible operation.
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Discussion over the possibility of a ceasefire agreement took up much of the call, a senior U.S. administration official said, and after weeks of diplomacy, there is now “virtually” a “framework” for an agreement that could allow the 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 still exist” but declined to provide details. The official said military pressure on Hamas in the southern city of Khan Younis in recent weeks 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 that any invasion of 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 threatened to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if troops are sent to Rafah.
Federman reported from Jerusalem and Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.