At least 67 Palestinians were killed during an Israeli commando raid into the southern Gaza city of Rafah to rescue two hostages seized in the surprise Hamas attack into southern Israel on October 7th.
The Israeli military said it obtained precise intelligence that the two Israeli-Argentinians were being held in an apartment on the second floor of a building in the heart of Rafah, Gaza’s third largest city which straddles the Egyptian border. Special forces, some disguised as Arabs, managed to reach the apartment undetected in the early hours of Monday morning and placed an explosive charge on the locked door. The Israeli military said it took the raiding force three seconds to shoot and kill the three Hamas guards inside.
It says it then unleashed a huge barrage of cover fire from the air and ground at Hamas targets across Rafah, while the hostages were rappelled with ropes to the ground, extricated under heavy fire to a nearby helipad and flown by helicopter to a Tel Aviv hospital.
A Reuters journalist at the scene in Rafah saw a vast area of rubble where buildings, including a mosque, had been destroyed. Israel says many of those killed are militants; the Gaza ministry says 70 per cent are civilians. The Palestinian Authority’s official television station, Palestine TV, said 74 Palestinians were killed in the Israeli operation in Rafah. There was no immediate confirmation from the Gaza health ministry.
Doctors said Louis Norberto Har (70) and Fernando Marman (60), who were both kidnapped while visiting kibbutz Nir Yitzhak, were in good condition and they were reunited with relatives.
Visiting the Yamam special police anti-terror unit, which led the raid, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the forces that the operation was “one of the most successful rescue raids in the history of Israel”.
“You killed the kidnappers, the terrorists, and made your way back unharmed into Israel. A perfect operation that was perfectly executed,” he added.
Hamas said a further three hostages who had been injured in recent Israeli air strikes had now died, adding the fate of other wounded hostages was not yet clear.
Residents of Rafah, where more than one million residents fled to avoid the fighting in other areas of Gaza, had been bracing themselves for an Israeli ground operation and most thought the heavy fire in the early hours of the morning marked the start of the Israeli assault. Thousands fled north out of the city on Monday following the Israeli raid.
More than 28,000 people have been killed in Gaza according to the Hamas-run health ministry. Israel says 1,200 people were killed in the Hamas attack on October 7th and more than 250 kidnapped.
The head of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, repeated his call for a ceasefire on Monday.
He said only 15 out of 36 hospitals in Gaza are “still partially or minimally functioning” and that aid workers are doing their best in impossible circumstances.
UN human rights chief Volker Turk called the prospect of an attack on Rafah “terrifying”.
“Those with influence must restrain, rather than enable,” he said in a statement.
Talks are due to resume on Tuesday in Cairo as efforts to free the remaining 134 hostages and secure another ceasefire.
Israel’s foreign minister Yisrael Katz has declared the United Nations envoy to the West Bank and Gaza, Francesca Albanese, persona non grata after she said victims of Hamas’ October 7th attacks were not murdered for being Jews, but “in response to Israel’s oppression”.
“The time when Jews kept silent is over,” Mr Katz said in a statement. “Blocking her entry to Israel may remind her why Hamas slaughtered babies, women and children.”
Britain on Monday sanctioned four West Bank settlers who have been implicated in violence against Palestinians, following the example of the United States which imposed sanctions against the individuals last week.
Israel’s finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, head of the far-right Religious Zionist party, criticised the move. “These sanctions are against half a million settlers, against the settlements, against IDF soldiers and their commanders,” he said.
– Additional reporting, Reuters