Israeli military says it rescued 2 hostages during Rafah raid; Gaza officials say dozens of Palestinians killed

Israeli hostage rescue operation in Rafah kills dozens of Palestinian civilians

Rafah, Gaza Strip — The Israeli military says it rescued two hostages from the Gaza Strip in a dramatic raid under fire 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. At least 67 Palestinians were killed in airstrikes that were part of the raid, according to Palestinian hospital officials.

The raid took place 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. The CBS News team in Gaza reported hearing heavy gunfire and explosions across Rafah overnight and said dozens were killed.

Army spokesman Daniel Hagari said the hostages had been held in a second-floor apartment in Rafah, under guard from Hamas gunmen, both in the apartment and nearby buildings.

Smoke billows during Israeli bombardment of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Feb. 12, 2024. SAID KHATIB / AFP via Getty Images

Hagari said special forces broke into the apartment under fire at 1:49 a.m. Monday, accompanied a minute later by a series of airstrikes on surrounding areas. He said members of the rescue team shielded the hostages with their bodies as a heavy battle erupted in several places at once with many Hamas gunmen.

The hostages were taken to a nearby "safe area" and given a quick medical check before being flown to a hospital in central Israel. The army said both men were in good condition.

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. Netanyahu's office said they also hold Argentinian citizenship. In a social media post, Argentine President Milei thanked Israel for the rescue.

Both were airlifted to Sheba Hospital and were reported to be in good medical condition. 

Luis Har, left, one of two hostages rescued in an operation in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, embraces loved ones at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, Israel, on Feb. 12, 2024.  Israel Defense Forces via AP

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."

Hagari said the operation was based on precise intelligence and been planned for some time, but that rescuers were waiting for the right moment to act. Netanyahu joined Israel's military chief and other top officials as the raid unfolded.

They are just the second and third hostages to be rescued safely. A female soldier was rescued in November.

Over 100 hostages were freed during a weeklong cease-fire in November. Israel says about 100 hostages remain in Hamas captivity, while it believes 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 Israeli troops after escaping their captors in December.

The remaining hostages are believed to be spread out and hidden in tunnels, likely in poor conditions. 

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.

After Monday's rescues, Netanyahu repeated in a statement released by his office that, "Only continued military pressure, until complete victory (over Hamas), will result in the release of all our hostages."

Israel intensifies military action in Rafah

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 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.

Women and children were among those killed in the Israeli strikes, according to Dr. Marwan al-Hams, director of the Abu Youssef al-Najjar hospital, and dozens were wounded. Many Palestinians in Gaza have fled to Rafah as Israel's operations against Hamas leveled other parts of the enclave.

Injured Palestinians are brought to Kuwait Hospital for treatment following Israeli attacks on Rafah in the south of Gaza on Feb. 12, 2024. Abed Zagout / Anadolu via Getty Images

Abu Haloub was initially displaced when his home in the north of Gaza was bombed. He fled to Rafah hoping for safety. Now he's been been told to evacuate again and no idea where he can go.

"The Israeli army left us with nothing," he said, sobbing. "Now I will even have to sell my tent.

Hamas militants killed an estimated 1,200 people in their attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, and kidnapped about 250 others. The  Israeli air and ground offensive has killed over 28,000 Palestinians, according to local health officials, displacing over 80% of the population and leading to a massive humanitarian crisis.

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," a district in Rafah.

Gazans sheltering in Rafah left with few options amid Israeli airstrikes

Netanyahu has said sending ground troops into Rafah is essential to meeting Israel's war goals. Mr. 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.

Mr. Biden's remarks, made in a phone call with Netanyahu late Sunday, were his most forceful language yet on the possible operation. Mr. 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.

Reuters reports that Israel called on U.N. relief agencies Monday to aid its efforts to get civilians out of Gaza war zones before its planned ground assault on Rafah. "We urge U.N. agencies to cooperate," Reuters quotes government spokesperson Eylon Levy as saying in a briefing. "Don't say it can't be done. Work with us to find a way."

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.

Israel prepares ground offensive in Rafah

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.

Mr. 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.

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 Hamas-run 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. 


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