February 21, 2024

Israeli special operations forces raided a building in the southern Gazan city of Rafah early Monday to free two hostages held by Hamas, the military said, as Israel launched a wave of attacks overnight that killed dozens of Palestinians in Rafah, according to the Gazan health ministry.

The operations were met with elation in Israel, and grief and foreboding in the Gaza Strip, where more than a million Palestinians have crowded into Rafah, fleeing their homes and seeking refuge from Israeli military actions farther north. Palestinians feared the raid — and the accompanying death toll — portended a more prolonged Israeli operation to capture Rafah.

The nighttime rescue operation marked only the second time Israeli forces said they had rescued captives in Gaza since the war began in October. The fate of more than 100 hostages captured at the start of the war on Oct. 7 has become one of the country’s highest priorities, along with the defeat of Hamas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has signaled that Israeli ground forces will enter Rafah with the goal of eliminating Hamas battalions there, though the precise timing is unclear. The prospect of street battles inside the crowded city, which is bracketed by a closed Egyptian border, has created worldwide alarm over the risks to civilians who say they have nowhere else to flee.

The hostage rescue showed Israel’s determination to press ahead with its offensive despite criticism from the United States and other allies, and pressure to reduce civilian casualties and destruction. President Biden on Thursday called Israel’s campaign “over the top” and said the suffering of innocent people has “got to stop.”

At 1:49 a.m. on Monday, Israeli special forces soldiers broke into a building where the two hostages were being held, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the military’s chief spokesman, said at a news conference. About a minute later, Israeli forces fired on nearby buildings in an effort to disrupt Hamas’s communications and to allow the soldiers to safely bring the hostages out, he said. He also said that Israeli warplanes had fired on Hamas targets in the area.

Drone footage later released by the Israeli military appeared to show roughly a dozen Israeli troops entering a building by foot from a street lined with detached and flat-roofed houses. Other footage showed a blast at the building next door, caused by what the Israeli military said was an Israeli strike.

Images captured by Palestinian photographers in the aftermath of the attack showed several badly damaged concrete buildings, one of them reduced to rubble. Both the Palestinian images and the Israeli video appeared to have been taken from the same location, next to several rows of tents.

Smoke billowing over Rafah, Gaza, during a wave of Israeli attacks early on Monday.Credit…Mohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The ministry of health in Gaza said that at least 67 people had been killed overnight in Israeli strikes in Rafah. News outlets reported deadly attacks on two mosques in Rafah.

Neither the Israeli account nor the toll reported by the Gazan health ministry — which does not distinguish between civilian and combatant deaths — could be verified independently.

Ziad Obeid, a customs official who had fled to Rafah, described being awakened at 2 a.m. by a barrage of explosions so bright that it was “as if we were in the middle of the day, not the night.” He added: “It was a horrible night.”

The Israeli military said the soldiers forced their way inside a second-floor apartment to rescue the two hostages, Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70.

The military said the ensuing strikes were intended to prevent Hamas commanders in the surrounding area from contacting the hostages’ guards and completing “an operational picture” of the raid.

The military did not reveal how the commandos reached the house, but Israeli news media reported that they forced open a door with an explosive, and that the hostages were evacuated by helicopter.

The operation was greeted joyfully in Israel, where the fate of the hostages has exacerbated social divisions and trauma.

Some Israelis want their government to agree to a deal that would free the remaining hostages in exchange for ending the war, fearing that the Israeli offensive puts the captives in jeopardy.

The rescue was a major boost for Mr. Netanyahu, who said in a statement on Monday that “only continued military pressure, until total victory, will bring about the release of all of our hostages.”

Palestinians ride in the back of a truck as they flee Rafah on Monday.Credit…Mohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Netanyahu, vowing to end Hamas’s control of Gaza, has ignored warnings — from the United States, the United Nations, aid groups and others that an advance on Rafah would be devastating to civilians and risk exacerbating a catastrophe that is already unfolding, with residents running low on food, clean water and medicine.

Mr. Netanyahu has ordered the military to draw up plans to evacuate civilians from Rafah, but aid groups and others say there is no place left for them to go. On Sunday, he promised to offer Palestinians safe passage to northern areas of Gaza before an invasion of Rafah, though he offered no details.

Yan Zhuang, Gabby Sobelman and Andrés R. Martínez contributed reporting.