Israel freed two Israeli-Argentinian hostages in Rafah today under the cover of air strikes which local health officials said killed 67 Palestinians and wounded dozens in the southern Gaza city that is the last refuge of over a million displaced civilians, Reuters reports.
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 taken as prisoners of war on 7 October.
More than four months on, Israel has decimated Gaza, killed more than 28,340 Palestinians and wounded 67,984 others, 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 today’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.
Hassouna said: “We were displaced from the north, we have nothing to do with anything. Why did you bomb us? Please justify.”
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 metres from our tent camp,” Gaza businessman Emad, a father of six, told Reuters. 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.