Israeli forces rescued two hostages early Monday, storming a heavily guarded apartment in a densely packed town in the Gaza Strip as air strikes carried out to cover the raid killed more than 60 Palestinians, including women and children.
The rescue in Rafah briefly lifted the spirits of Israelis shaken by the plight of the dozens of hostages held by Hamas. The nation is still reeling from the militant group’s cross-border raid last year that started the war.
The overnight bombardment brought devastation in Rafah, which is packed with some 1.4 million people, most of whom fled their homes elsewhere in Gaza to escape fighting. Associated Press footage showed a large area of flattened houses, tattered tents and lines of bloodied bodies brought into nearby hospitals.
Declaring that “every innocent life lost in Gaza is a tragedy,” U.S. President Joe Biden welcomed Jordan’s King Abdullah II to the White House Monday for talks on how to end the months-long war and plan for what comes afterward.
“The key elements of the deal are on the table,” Mr. Biden said alongside the king, though “there are gaps that remain.” He said the U.S. would do “everything possible” to make an agreement happen: a pause to fighting for at least six weeks and the release of the remaining hostages held by Hamas.
Israel’s offensive has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians in the territory, displaced over 80 per cent of the population and set off a massive humanitarian crisis.
More than 12,300 Palestinian children and young teens have been killed in the conflict, Gaza’s Health Ministry said Monday. About 8,400 women were also among those killed. That means children and young teens make up about 43 per cent of the dead, and women and minors together make up three quarters.
The ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians, provided the breakdown at the request of the AP. Israel claims to have killed about 10,000 Hamas fighters but has not provided evidence.
In Hamas’ cross-border raid on Oct. 7, an estimated 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed, and militants took 250 people captive, according to Israeli authorities.
Israel has described Rafah as the last remaining Hamas stronghold in the territory and signalled that its ground offensive may soon target the town on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip.
Israel says about 100 hostages remain in Hamas captivity after dozens were freed during a cease-fire in November. Hamas also holds the remains of roughly 30 others who were either killed on Oct. 7 or died in captivity.
The government has made freeing the hostages a top aim of its war, along with destroying Hamas’ military and governing capabilities. But as the fighting drags on, rifts have emerged in Israel over how to retrieve them.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says persistent military pressure will bring about the captives’ freedom even as families of the hostages and many of their supporters have called on the government to make another deal with Hamas.
Israel launched a special forces operation that freed two Israeli hostages in Rafah amid airstrikes early on Feb. 12, which local health officials said killed 67 people and wounded dozens in the southern Gaza city.
Israeli military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said special forces broke into a second-floor apartment in Rafah under fire at 1:49 a.m. Monday, accompanied a minute later by air strikes on surrounding areas. He said Hamas militants were guarding the captives and that members of the rescue team shielded the hostages with their bodies as the battle erupted.
The army identified those rescued as Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, who were abducted from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak on Oct. 7. They also hold Argentinian citizenship. They are among just three hostages to be rescued; a female soldier was rescued in November.
The rescue, which Rear Adm. Hagari said was based on precise intelligence and planned for some time, is a morale booster for Israelis but a small step toward winning the release of the remaining hostages, who are believed to be spread out and hidden in tunnels.
Har’s son-in-law, Idan Begerano, who saw the released captives at the hospital where they were airlifted, said the two men were thin and pale, but communicating well and aware of their surroundings.
Mr. Begerano said Mr. Har told him immediately upon seeing him: “You have a birthday today, mazal tov.” The men held long, tearful embraces with their relatives at the hospital, according to video released by Mr. Netanyahu’s office.
The air strikes hit jam-packed Rafah in the middle of the night, and dozens of explosions could be heard around 2 a.m. Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesman for the Health Ministry, said at least 67 people, including women and children, were killed in the strikes.
Al-Qidra said rescuers were still searching the rubble. An Associated Press journalist counted at least 50 bodies at the Abu Youssef al-Najjar Hospital in Rafah.
Mohamed Zoghroub, a Palestinian living in Rafah, said he saw a black jeep speeding through the town followed by clashes and heavy air strikes.
“We found ourselves running with our children, from the air strikes, in every direction,” he said, speaking from an area flattened by the bombardment.
Footage circulating on social media from Rafah’s Kuwaiti hospital showed dead or wounded children. The footage could not immediately be verified but was consistent with AP reporting.
A young man could be seen carrying the body of an infant who he said was killed in the attacks. He said the girl, the daughter of his neighbour, was born and killed during the war.
“Let Netanyahu come and see: Is this one of your designated targets?” he said.
Over a million Palestinians crammed in the southern Gaza city of Rafah are bracing for further assault as Israel orders them to move ever further south towards the Egyptian border during its war with Hamas. The dire humanitarian situation has sparked Arab and U.N. concerns that Palestinians may eventually be driven over the border.
Mr. Netanyahu has said sending ground troops into Rafah is essential to meeting Israel’s war goals.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said Monday that she is “very concerned” about what is taking place in Gaza and particularly in Rafah.
The operation is devastating to Palestinians and all those seeking refuge, including foreign nationals and Canadians, she said.
“What the Netanyahu government is asking them to do, which is to leave again, is unacceptable,” Ms. Joly said in Ottawa. “They have nowhere to go and so that’s why we need right now for the violence to stop.”
On Sunday, the White House said Mr. Biden had warned Mr. Netanyahu that Israel should not conduct a military operation there without a “credible and executable” plan to protect civilians.
More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million population is now crammed into Rafah, where hundreds of thousands live in sprawling tent camps and overcrowded UN shelters.
Mr. Biden’s remarks, made in a phone call with Mr. Netanyahu, were his most forceful language yet on the possible operation.
Discussion of the potential for a cease-fire agreement took up much of the call, a senior U.S. administration official said. The official said that after weeks of diplomacy, a “framework” is now “pretty much” in place for a deal that could see the release of remaining hostages held by Hamas in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and a halt to fighting.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss negotiations, acknowledged that “gaps remain” but declined to give details. The official said military pressure on Hamas in the southern city of Khan Younis in recent weeks helped bring the group closer to accepting a deal.
Mr. Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the call. Hamas’ Al-Aqsa television station earlier quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying any invasion of Rafah would “blow up” the talks mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Netanyahu spoke after two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said Egypt threatened to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if troops are sent into Rafah.
With a report from Kristy Kirkup in Ottawa
U.S. President Joe Biden said on Feb. 12 the United States is pushing for a six-week pause in the fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza as a stepping stone toward a longer ceasefire.