RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — The Israeli military said it rescued two hostages from captivity in the Gaza Strip early Monday, marking a small but symbolically significant success in its quest to bring home over 100 captives believed to be held by the Hamas militant group.
The hostages were released in a raid that included a series of Israeli strikes in Rafah, the city on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip where 1.4 million Palestinians have fled to escape fighting elsewhere in the Israel-Hamas war.
Hospital officials in Rafah said at least 16 Palestinians were killed and 55 wounded in a series of overnight airstrikes, but it was not clear how many of the strikes were linked to the hostage rescue.
Israel has described Rafah as the last remaining Hamas stronghold in Gaza after more than four months of war and signaled that its ground offensive may soon target the densely populated city. On Sunday, the White House said President Joe Biden had warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel should not conduct a military operation against Hamas in Rafah without a “credible and executable” plan to protect civilians.
The army identified the rescued hostages as Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, who it said were kidnapped by Hamas militants from Kibbutz Nir Yizhak in the Oct. 7 cross-border attack that triggered the war. Both were airlifted to Sheba Hospital in central Israel and were reported to be in good medical condition. They are just the second and third hostages to be rescued safely. A female soldier was rescued in November.
Monday’s raid included at least 15 airstrikes, flares and Apache helicopter fire, witnesses said. Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, a military spokesman, said the operation was based on “precise intelligence,” and that the site, located on the second floor of a building, had been watched for some time. He said Netanyahu joined Israel’s military chief and other top officials as the raid unfolded.
Hamas militants killed an estimated 1,200 people and kidnapped 250 others in the Oct. 7 raid. An Israeli air and ground offensive has killed over 28,000 Palestinians, according to local health officials, displaced over 80% of the population and led to a massive humanitarian crisis.
Over 100 hostages were freed during a weeklong cease-fire in November. Israel says about 100 hostages remain in Hamas captivity, while Hamas is holding the remains of roughly 30 others who were either killed on Oct. 7 or died in captivity. Three hostages were mistakenly killed by the army after escaping their captors in December.
The remaining hostages are believed to be spread out and hidden in tunnels, likely in poor conditions. The rescue is a morale booster for Israelis, but it’s a small step toward winning the release of all of them.
Har’s son-in-law, Idan Bergerano, told Israel’s Channel 13 TV 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. Bergernano said Har told him immediately upon seeing him: “You have a birthday today, mazal tov.”
Israel has made the return of all hostages one of the main goals of the war. Netanyahu has vowed to press ahead with Israel’s military offensive until a “total victory” that also includes destroying Hamas’ military and governing capabilities.
The strikes hit around Rafah’s Kuwait Hospital early Monday morning, an Associated Press journalist in Rafah said. Some of those wounded in the strikes had been brought to the hospital.
The Israeli military earlier said it struck “terror targets in the area of Shaboura” — which is a district in Rafah.
Palestinian health officials did not immediately offer any casualty information. The army said it had killed at least three militants in the raid. An AP journalist counted seven bodies.
Netanyahu has said sending ground troops into Rafah is essential to meeting Israel’s war goals. Biden has urged Israel to exercise extreme caution before moving in. An estimated 1.4 million Palestinians — more than half of Gaza’s population — are now crammed into Rafah, increasing its population five-fold. Hundreds of thousands of people are now living in sprawling tent camps and overcrowded U.N. shelters.
Biden’s remarks, made in a phone call with Netanyahu late Sunday, were his most forceful language yet on the possible operation. Biden, who last week called Israel’s military response in Gaza “over the top,” also sought “urgent and specific” steps to strengthen humanitarian aid. Israel’s Channel 13 TV said the conversation lasted 45 minutes.
Discussion of the potential for a cease-fire 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 the release of remaining hostages held by Hamas in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and a halt to fighting.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss negotiations, acknowledged that “gaps remain,” but declined to give 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 any invasion of Rafah would “blow up” the talks mediated 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 into Rafah. The Camp David peace accords have been a cornerstone of regional stability for over 40 years. Egypt fears a mass influx of Palestinian refugees who may never be allowed to return.
WHERE WOULD CIVILIANS GO?
Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries have also warned of severe repercussions if Israel goes into Rafah.
“An Israeli offensive on Rafah would lead to an unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe and grave tensions with Egypt,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote on X. Human Rights Watch said forced displacement is a war crime.
Inside Rafah, some displaced people packed up again. Rafat and Fedaa Abu Haloub, who fled Beit Lahia in the north earlier in the war, placed their belongings onto a truck. “We don’t know where we can safely take him,” Fedaa said of their baby. “Every month we have to move.”
Om Mohammad Al-Ghemry, displaced from Nuseirat, said she hoped Egypt would not allow Israel to force Palestinians to flee into the Sinai “because we do not want to leave.”
Heavy fighting continues in central Gaza and Khan Younis.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said Sunday that the bodies of 112 people killed across the territory had been brought to hospitals in the past 24 hours. The death toll is 28,176 since the start of the war. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and fighters but says most of those killed were women and children.
Federman reported from Jerusalem. AP correspondents Sam Magdy in Cairo and Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.