DOHA/JERUSALEM – Israel on Monday freed two Israeli-Argentinean hostages held by Hamas in Rafah, in a ferocious rescue operation that killed 74 Palestinians in the southern city of Gaza, where around a million civilians have sought refuge after months of of bombings.
The mission by the Israeli military, the Shin Bet security service and a special police unit freed Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Hare, 70, the military said. They were among 250 people detained during the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas militants that triggered Israel's war in Gaza.
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More than four months later, much of the densely populated Mediterranean strip of land lies in ruins, with 28,340 Palestinians dead and 67,984 injured, according to Gaza health officials, and many more are believed to be buried under the rubble.
The Israeli military says 31 hostages died in that period, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday's rescue showed that military pressure should continue and he ignored international alarm over plans for a ground attack on Rafah.
Washington welcomed the release of the hostages but said it was pressing Israel for a ceasefire and increasing aid to Gaza.
John Kirby, White House national security spokesman, told reporters that some progress had been made in negotiations for a pause in fighting but that there was still more work to be done.
In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the Palestinian Authority's official television station, Palestine TV, said 74 Palestinians were killed in the Israeli operation in Rafah. There was no immediate confirmation from the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.
A Reuters journalist at the scene in Rafah saw a vast area of rubble where buildings, including a mosque, had been destroyed.
“I have been collecting body parts from my family since morning,” said Ibrahim Hassouna, as a woman knelt over the body of a child nearby. “I only recognized the fingers or toes.”
An Israeli military spokesman said the hostages were being held on the second floor of a building that was rigged with explosives during the operation, amid heavy exchanges of fire with neighboring buildings.
“We have been working on this operation for a long time,” said Lt. Col. Richard Hecht. “We were waiting for the right conditions.”
A relative of one of the hostages said he saw the two men freed after the rescue and found them “a little frail, a little thin, a little pale,” but generally in good condition.
Edan Begerano, Hare's son-in-law, said the hostages were sleeping when “within a minute” the commandos were in the building and covered them as they fought their captors.
“We were a little shocked… We didn’t expect it,” he said of the rescue, adding that Israel and Hamas needed to reach a quick agreement to secure the release of the remaining hostages.
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Hamas said three more hostages injured in recent Israeli airstrikes had died, adding that the fate of other injured hostages was still unclear.
Israel's military said the airstrikes coincided with the attack to allow the extraction of its forces.
Hassouna, displaced from northern Gaza, said his family members were killed at least 4 kilometers from the military operation.
“We have nothing to do with anything. Why did you bomb us? he asked.
People in Rafah said two mosques and several residential buildings were hit in more than an hour of attacks, which also destroyed tents where people were sheltering.
Injured children were awaiting treatment at the Kuwaiti hospital in Rafah.
“We were in the tent, me and my whole family, when the bullets came towards us,” said Mai Al-Najjar, who had shrapnel wounds to her shoulder and face. She fought back tears as she described how her father was killed in the car as they fled.
Israel says many of those killed are militants; the Gaza ministry says 70% are civilians.
Rafah attack fears
Some Palestinians feared that Israel had begun a long-awaited ground offensive on the city.
But US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the US does not believe the strikes are the start of a large-scale ground attack.
Hamas militants killed 1,200 people in the Oct. 7 incursion into Israel, according to Israeli records. Israel said it had killed more than 12,000 Hamas militants and eliminated three-quarters of its battalions, of which it previously said four were in Rafah.
UN human rights chief Volker Turk called the prospect of an attack on Rafah “terrifying”.
“Those with influence should restrict, rather than enable,” he said in a statement.
Many Western leaders expressed alarm at Israel's offensive, although they continued to support the country.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell suggested on Monday that the way to reduce civilian casualties was to stop arms supplies to Israel.
“If the international community believes that this is a massacre, that too many people are being killed, perhaps we have to think about supplying weapons,” he told journalists in Brussels.
The State Department's Miller said he did not believe cutting aid would have “any more impact than the steps Washington has already taken.”
A Dutch appeals court said it blocked the export of F-35 fighter jet parts to Israel due to a “clear risk of violations of international humanitarian law” in Gaza. However, the government said it would appeal.
Britain urged Israel to agree to a truce to free its hostages, while Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, visiting Jerusalem, said he had warned Netanyahu not to move forward.
The prime minister on Friday ordered the military to create a plan to evacuate civilians from Rafah to protect them during the offensive against Rafah.
Asked about civilian evacuation plans, Lt. Col. Hecht said he did not yet know how this would be done.