Israel frees two hostages, Gaza officials say airstrikes kill 67More than four months on, much of the densely-populated strip of land on the Mediterranean is in ruins, with 28,340 Palestinians dead and 67,984 wounded, according to Gaza health officials.
Israel freed two Israeli-Argentinian hostages in Rafah on Monday under the cover of airstrikes which local health officials said killed 67 Palestinians and wounded dozens in the southern Gaza city that is the last refuge of about a million displaced civilians.
A joint operation by the Israeli military, the domestic Shin Bet security service and the Special Police Unit in Rafah freed Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Hare, 70, the military said. They were among 250 people seized during the Oct. 7 raid by Hamas militants that triggered Israel’s war on Gaza.
More than four months on, much of the densely-populated strip of land on the Mediterranean is in ruins, with 28,340 Palestinians dead and 67,984 wounded, according to Gaza health officials, who say many others are buried under rubble.
The Israeli military says 31 hostages have since died, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday’s rescue showed that military pressure should continue, brushing aside international alarm at its plans for a ground assault on Rafah.
“Fernando and Louis, welcome home,” he said, saluting the Israeli forces who rescued them. “Only continued military pressure, until total victory, will bring about the release of all of our hostages.”
The Gaza health ministry said 67 people had been killed overnight and the number could rise as rescue operations were under way. A Reuters journalist at the scene saw a vast area of rubble where buildings, including a mosque, had been destroyed.
“Why did you kill my family while they were sleeping? They are children. I’ve been collecting my family’s body parts since the morning, they were in parts, I couldn’t recognise them, I only recognised their toes or fingers,” said Ibrahim Hassouna as a woman knelt over the body of a young child nearby.
The hostages were being held on the second floor of a building that was breached with explosives during the raid, which saw heavy exchanges of gunfire with surrounding buildings, an Israeli military spokesman said.
“We’ve been working a long time on this operation,” Lt Col. Richard Hecht said. “We were waiting for the right conditions.”
The Argentinian government thanked Israel for the rescue of the two men, who it said were dual nationals of Argentina. A photograph showed them in hospital, sitting on a sofa alongside relatives and looking frail but relieved.
Hassouna said his relatives were killed at least 4 km (2 miles) from the military operation.
“We were displaced from the north, we have nothing to do with anything. Why did you bomb us? Please justify.”
Israel’s military said airstrikes had coincided with the raid to allow its forces to be extracted.
People in Rafah said two mosques and several residential buildings were hit in more than an hour of strikes by Israeli warplanes, tanks and ships, causing widespread panic among Gazans woken from their sleep.
“Death was so near as shells and missiles landed 200 meters from our tent camp,” Gaza businessman Emad, a father of six, told Reuters via a chat app. He said it was the worst night of bombing since they arrived in Rafah last month.
Some feared Israel had begun a long-expected ground offensive in the city, where more than a million people displaced by Israel’s war on Hamas are sheltering with nowhere else to go.
“Everyone said it was a surprise ground attack. My family and I said our last prayers,” Emad said.
A relative of one of the hostages said he had seen both freed men in hospital following their rescue and found them “a bit frail, a bit thin, a bit pale” but overall in good condition.
Idan Bejerano, Hare’s son-in-law, said the hostages had both been sleeping when “within a minute” the commandos were in the building and covering them as they fought the captors.
They were now being treated in Israel’s Sheba hospital, its director Prof Arnon Afek said.
Hamas said the attack on Rafah was a continuation of a “genocidal war” and forced displacement attempts Israel has waged against the Palestinian people.
Hamas militants killed 1,200 people in southern Israel, in the Oct 7 incursion that sparked the war, according to Israeli tallies. Israel says Hamas has four battlaions in Rafah.
Dutch court blocks export of fighter jets to Israel
Many Western leaders have expressed alarm at Israel’s offensive while continuing to support the country.
However, a Dutch appeals court said it had blocked the export of F-35 fighter jets parts to Israel over a “clear risk of violations of international humanitarian law” in its operations in Gaza. Israel’s Defence Ministry declined comment on the decision.
US President Joe Biden told Netanyahu on Sunday that Israel should not start a military operation in Rafah without a credible plan to ensure the safety of the roughly 1 million people sheltering there, the White House said.
Biden said last week that Israel’s military response in the Gaza Strip had been “over the top” and expressed grave concern over the rising civilian death toll.
Aid agencies say an assault on Rafah would be catastrophic. Egypt has reinforced its border with the city, saying it fears Gazans will be pushed across, never to return.
An Israeli official has said people will be evacuated further north but its forces are also active in central Gaza. Palestinian medics said 15 people had been killed in an airstrike in the central town of Deir Al-Balah.
A senior Hamas leader said at the weekend that any Israeli ground offensive in Rafah would “blow up” hostage-exchange negotiations which have been gathering pace. Netanyhu said “enough” of the 132 remaining Israeli hostages were alive to justify the fight.