A Palestinian looks at the debris from fighting following the hostage rescue operation by Israeli special forces in Nuseirat camp, central Gaza, on June 8, 2024

Gaza Strip (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Israelis on Sunday cheered the rescue of four hostages from war-torn Gaza while Palestinians counted the cost, with Palestinian officials saying 274 people were killed and hundreds wounded during the daytime raid.

Special forces fought gun battles with Palestinian militants on Saturday in central Gaza’s crowded Nuseirat refugee camp area as they swooped in to free the captives from two buildings and then flew them out by helicopters.

The Israeli military said the extraction team and captives came under heavy gun and grenade fire, which killed one police officer, while Israel’s air force launched strikes that reduced nearby buildings to rubble.

The health ministry in the Hamas-run territory said 274 people were killed and 698 wounded, in what it labelled the “Nuseirat massacre”, figures that could not be independently verified.

Freed Israeli hostage Noa Argamani, 26, is embraced by her father at a hospital on June 8, 2024

Among those were at least 64 children, 57 women and 37 elderly people, the ministry said.

“My child was crying, afraid of the sound of the plane firing at us,” said one Gaza woman, Hadeel Radwan, 32, recounting how they fled the intense combat as she carried her seven-month-old daughter.

“We all felt that we wouldn’t survive,” she told AFP, condemning “this brutal occupation that will not let us live”.

Noa Argamani, 26, Almog Meir Jan, 22, Andrey Kozlov, 27, and Shlomi Ziv, 41, had been abducted from the Nova music festival during Hamas’s October 7 attack.

Many Israelis shed tears of joy when they heard of the release of the four captives, all reported in good health.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the hospital treating the four rescued hostages

The army released footage of the freed captives embracing their family members, and the government press office showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting them in hospital.

But Meir Jan’s joy at being released was undercut by the death of his father of a heart attack just one day earlier.

Israel’s leading dailies, Yedioth Ahronoth and Israel Hayom, showed Argamani embraced by her father on their front pages under the same simple headline: “Home”.

- Renewed clashes -

Palestinians inspect damage to buildings following the hostage rescue raid in the Nuseirat camp in the central Gaza Strip on June 8, 2024

Hamas’s armed wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, claimed that other hostages were killed during the rescue operation, and warned that conditions would worsen for the remaining captives.

“The operation will pose a great danger (for) the enemy’s prisoners and will have a negative impact on their conditions,” spokesman Abu Obaida wrote on the Telegram channel.

Israel’s top diplomat rejected accusations “of war crimes” in the operation.

“We will continue to act with determination and strength, in accordance with our right to self-defence, until all of the hostages are freed and Hamas is defeated,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz said.

A rescued hostage is seen on a large screen at a rally in Tel Aviv by relatives and supporters of Israelis taken captive in Gaza in the October 7 attacks

Seeking to explain the civilian toll and damage from the raid, Israeli military spokesman Peter Lerner told US network ABC that forces “came under fire from a 360-degree threat. RPGs, AK-47s, explosive devices on the way, mortar rounds. It was and is a war zone.”

Subsequent fighting saw four members of one family killed when an air strike hit their house in Gaza City’s Al-Daraj area, in the territory’s north, according to Al-Ahli hospital medics.

Israeli helicopters were also firing east of the Bureij camp, near Nuseirat, witnesses told AFP.

And heavy artillery shelling from Israeli army tanks hit central and northern areas of Rafah, said officials in the southern city.

The four freed hostages are among only seven that Israeli forces have managed to rescue alive since Palestinian militants seized 251 in their October 7 attack.

Israeli hostage Andrey Kozlov, 27, disembarks with soldiers from an air force CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter after his rescue from captivity in the Gaza Strip, near Tel Aviv on June 8, 2024

Dozens were exchanged in a November truce for Palestinian prisoners. After Saturday’s rescue operation, 116 hostages remain in Gaza, although the army says 41 of them are dead.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell welcomed the hostage release and said reports “of another massacre of civilians are appalling… the bloodbath must end immediately”.

- Blinken heads to Middle East -

United States President Joe Biden on May 31 launched a new push for a ceasefire and hostage release deal involving US, Qatari and Egyptian mediators, but without any tangible results so far.

An image depicting Noa Argamani, one of the four Israeli hostages rescued, is held up as Israeli activists rally during a demonstration calling for the return of hostages held in the Gaza Strip

Hamas has insisted on a permanent truce and full Israeli withdrawal from all parts of Gaza – demands that Israel has firmly rejected.

Hamas’s Qatar-based chief Ismail Haniyeh on Sunday condemned the “horrific massacre” in Nuseirat and insisted that “any agreement reached must include a permanent cessation of aggression, a complete withdrawal from the strip, an exchange deal and reconstruction”.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit the Middle East from Monday for his eighth regional tour since the October 7 attack, with stops planned in Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Qatar.

Blinken on Saturday again insisted that “the only thing standing in the way of achieving this ceasefire is Hamas. It is time for them to accept the deal.”

In an interview with US broadcaster CBS, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said “my hope is that by the time the Israeli prime minister comes to address Congress, which will be near the end of July, that we will have in place this ceasefire and hostage deal”.

Israeli special forces swooped in to free the captives from two buildings

The bloodiest ever Gaza war broke out after the October 7 attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Israel’s retaliatory military offensive has killed at least 37,084 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the territory’s health ministry.

“This horror must stop,” UN chief Antonio Guterres said on Saturday, when he detailed that 135 workers of the UN agency for Palestinians had died in the war, the world body’s highest toll in any conflict.

The war has brought widespread devastation to Gaza and displaced most of its 2.4 million inhabitants, many whom are on the brink of starvation.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators holding a 'red line' at a rally near the White House on June 8, 2024

Aid has arrived only sporadically by truck, airdrops and sea.

The US military said a temporary pier that had suffered storm damage late last month had been rebuilt and used on Saturday to deliver about 492 tonnes of “much needed humanitarian assistance”.