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 more than 100 captives believed to be held by the Hamas militant group.
The hostages were released in a raid that included a series of, 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. At least seven people were killed.
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.
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 of southern Israel. An Israeli air and ground offensive has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians, according to local health officials, displacing more than 80% of the population, leading to a massive humanitarian crisis.
More than 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, 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.