Dozens were reported killed in an overnight Israeli bombardment in the southern Gaza city of Rafah on Monday
Gaza Strip (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Israel announced on Monday the rescue of two hostages in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where the Hamas-run health ministry said “around 100” Palestinians including children were killed in heavy overnight air strikes.
Israel is preparing for a ground incursion into the teeming city along the border with Egypt, where hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians have sought refuge from fighting further north.
The precarious humanitarian situation in Rafah has prompted aid groups and foreign governments, including Israel’s key ally the United States, to express deep concern over the potentially disastrous consequences of expanding operations there.
The Israeli military announced early Monday morning that two hostages had been rescued in a joint military, Shin Bet and police operation in Rafah after nearly 130 days in captivity.
In a statement, the army identified the two as Fernando Simon Marman and Louis Har, saying they “were kidnapped by the Hamas terrorist organization on October 7th from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak”. Both were in “good medical condition”, it added.
“The military and the Shin Bet have been working on this operation for a long time… and they waited until the conditions were right to carry it out,” army spokesman Daniel Hagari said in a briefing.
A firefight broke out as the hostages were being taken out of the building they were held in, he added, with air strikes targeting nearby buildings where shots were fired.
Some 1.4 million people have crowded into Rafah, where food, water and medical supplies are increasingly scarce
“Many terrorists were killed this evening during this operation and one of our fighters was slightly injured,” he said.
During the October 7 attacks, Palestinian militants seized about 250 hostages, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures. Israel says around 130 are still in Gaza, though 29 are thought to be dead.
The Hamas attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
Israel has responded with a relentless offensive in Gaza that the territory’s health ministry says has killed at least 28,176 people as of Sunday, mostly women and children.
Dozens of hostages were freed by Hamas during a one-week truce in November that also saw the release of more than 200 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
Since then, Netanyahu has faced mounting protests and even calls for early elections, with relatives of the hostages frustrated over the pace of the rescues.
Renewed talks for a pause in the fighting have been held in Cairo, with Hamas open to a fresh ceasefire including more prisoner-hostage exchanges.
But a Hamas leader told AFP on condition of anonymity that an Israeli push into Rafah “would torpedo the exchange negotiations”.
The group’s military wing on Sunday said two hostages had been killed and eight others seriously wounded in Israeli bombardment in recent days, a claim AFP was unable to independently verify.
- Overnight strikes -
Despite mounting calls for him to strike a deal with Hamas to secure the remaining captives’ release, Netanyahu has insisted that only military pressure can bring them home.
Last week, he said he had ordered troops to prepare for operations in Rafah, the last major city they have yet to enter.
“Around 100” people were killed in heavy air strikes in the overcrowded city before dawn on Monday, according to a statement from the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
People sift through the rubble of a building damaged in an Israeli air strike on Rafah
AFP journalists and witnesses heard an intense series of strikes and saw smoke billowing above the city, which now hosts more than half of Gaza’s total population after they fled bombardment elsewhere in the Strip.
The strikes hit 14 houses and three mosques in different parts of Rafah, according to the Hamas government.
The Israeli military said it had “conducted a series of strikes on terror targets in the area of Shaboura in the southern Gaza Strip”, adding that the strikes had concluded.
An Israeli military armoured vehicle rolls near the border with the Gaza Strip
US President Joe Biden spoke to Netanyahu by phone Sunday and told him the Rafah advance should not go ahead in the absence of a “credible” plan to ensure “the safety” of people sheltering there, the White House said.
About 1.4 million Palestinians have crowded into Rafah, with many living in tents, while food, water and medicine are becoming increasingly scarce.
Netanyahu had told US broadcaster ABC News the Rafah operation would go ahead until Hamas was eliminated, adding he would provide “safe passage” to civilians wishing to leave.
When pressed about where they could go, Netanyahu said: “You know, the areas that we’ve cleared north of Rafah, plenty of areas there. But, we are working out a detailed plan.”
- ‘Demilitarisation’ -
During a visit to a military base Sunday, Netanyahu said Israel aims for “the demilitarisation of Gaza”.
“This requires our security control… over the entire area west of Jordan, including the Gaza Strip,” he said.
Qatar, Oman and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), meanwhile, were some of the latest to raise the alarm over the plan to advance on Rafah.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also rejected “forced” displacement of people from Rafah, evoking the trauma of Palestinians’ mass exodus and forced displacement around the time of Israel’s creation in 1948.
Riyadh called for an urgent UN Security Council meeting, while Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Cameron said the priority “must be an immediate pause in the fighting to get aid in and hostages out”.