Relatives of rescued Israeli hostages pose with an Israeli flag outside a medical centre in Ramat Gan where they were admitted

Palestinian Territories (AFP) - Israel said its forces rescued four hostages alive from a Gaza refugee camp on Saturday, after an operation that militant group Hamas said left dozens of Palestinians dead and wounded.

The four had been kidnapped by Hamas from the Nova music festival during the Islamists’ October 7 attacks that sparked war with Israel, the army said.

Noa Argamani, 26, Almog Meir Jan, 22, Andrey Kozlov, 27, and Shlomi Ziv, 41, had been rescued from two separate buildings “in the heart of Nuseirat” in a “complex daytime operation”, the military said, adding they were in “good medical condition”.

A woman holds signs with pictures of Noa Argamani and another hostage held by Palestinian militants in Gaza during a demonstration for their release, in Tel Aviv in April 2024

They were among 251 captives seized by the militants in their October attack on southern Israel. There are now 116 hostages remaining in Gaza, including 41 the army says are dead.

Footage posted on social media showed Argamani emotionally reuniting with her father after her rescue, as well as beachgoers erupting into cheers in Tel Aviv when a lifeguard announced the four had been freed.

Campaign group the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, which has pressed Israel’s government to reach a deal that would free the captives, hailed the rescue as a “miraculous triumph”.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said on X: “Noa, Almog, Andrey and Shlomi – we are overjoyed to have you home.”

“The message this morning to Hamas is clear: we are determined to bring back home all the hostages,” army spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said.

Israeli police said an officer was mortally wounded during the operation.

Palestinians walk on the rubble of destroyed buildings following an operation by Israeli forces in the Nuseirat refugee camp, central Gaza

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced regular street protests demanding a deal to bring the captives home. Pressure increased after Israeli troops retrieved the bodies of seven hostages from the Gaza Strip last month.

On Saturday Netanyahu said his security forces “have proven that Israel does not surrender to terrorism”. He pledged to return the rest of the captives.

His office also released a video of him speaking with Argamani on a mobile telephone.

She said she was “very excited” to return home, adding: “I haven’t spoken Hebrew in such a long time.”

Netanyahu told her: “We didn’t give up on you for one moment.”

The military had said, shortly before announcing the rare hostage rescue, that troops were targeting “terrorist infrastructure” around the Nuseirat camp.

A Gaza hospital said heavy Israeli strikes Saturday in central areas of the territory, including Nuseirat, killed at least 15 people.

Hamas said there were “dozens of bodies of martyrs and wounded lying on the ground, in the streets, and in safe rooms”. It accused Israeli forces of engaging in “brutal and savage aggression on Nuseirat camp”.

- ‘Defenceless’ -

The assault on Nuseirat came despite growing pressure on Israel after a strike on a UN-run school in the camp on Thursday that a Gaza hospital said had killed 37 people.

The military acknowledged carrying out the strike on the school, but said it killed 17 “terrorists”.

Displaced people flee from eastern parts of Deir al-Balah to the city centre, in the central Gaza Strip

UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees that ran the school, condemned Israel for striking a facility it said had been housing 6,000 displaced people.

Israel accuses Hamas and its allies in Gaza of using civilian infrastructure, including UN-run facilities, as operational centres – charges the militants deny.

The war, now in its ninth month, has brought widespread devastation to Gaza, with one in 20 people dead or wounded, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry. Most of Gaza’s 2.4 million inhabitants are displaced.

In Gaza City, overnight Friday-Saturday, five people were killed and seven wounded when an Israeli warplane bombed the Mhana family home, emergency services said.

Yussef al-Dalu was shocked his neighbour’s house had been reduced to rubble.

“I know that only defenceless civilians live in this house who are not part of any resistance (group),” he told AFPTV.

- Growing isolation -

The Hamas attack that triggered the war 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 36,801 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

A picture released by the Israeli army shows an Israeli soldier aiming a machine gun through a window during operations in the Gaza Strip

Seventy were killed in the past 24 hours, it said.

Israel faced growing diplomatic isolation, with international court cases accusing it of war crimes and several European countries recognising a Palestinian state.

Israel’s UN envoy, Gilad Erdan, said Friday he was “disgusted” the Israeli military would be on a United Nations list of countries and armed forces that fail to protect children during war.

A diplomatic source told AFP that Hamas as well as Palestinian Islamic Jihad would also be included in the annual UN report, which highlights human rights violations against children in conflict zones and is expected by the end of June.

Both Hamas and PIJ are designated as terrorist organisations by several countries, including the United States and the European Union.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a coalition government of his right-wing Likud with far-right and ultra-orthodox Jewish parties

Netanyahu also faces pressure from within his right-wing government.

After announcement of the hostage rescue, Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz cancelled a news conference that was scheduled for Saturday, his office said, amid speculation he had been planning to resign from the government.

Gantz said last month he would quit the war cabinet if Netanyahu did not approve a post-war plan for Gaza by June 8.

- US diplomacy -

Latest efforts to mediate the first ceasefire in the conflict since a week-long pause in November appear to have stalled a week after US President Joe Biden offered a new roadmap.

Latest efforts to mediate the first ceasefire in the conflict since a week-long pause in November, 2023 appear to have stalled a week after US President Joe Biden offered a new roadmap

Biden said the plan was to halt the fighting for six weeks while hostages are exchanged for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

The plan would also involve the stepped-up delivery of aid into Gaza.

The G7 group of world powers, and Arab states, have backed the proposal.

Hamas has yet to respond. Israel has expressed openness to discussions but remains committed to destroying the Islamist group.

Major sticking points include Hamas insisting on a permanent truce and full Israeli withdrawal – demands Israel has rejected.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to visit Israel and key regional partners Egypt, Jordan and Qatar from Monday on his eighth Middle East trip since the war began.