Israel frees two hostages in Rafah amid airstrikes; 37 Killed

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Israel conducted a special forces operation early Monday in Rafah, freeing two Israeli hostages amid airstrikes that local health officials said killed 37 people and wounded dozens in the southern Gaza city.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), in conjunction with the domestic Shin Bet security service and the Special Police Unit, liberated Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Hare, 70, according to the Israeli military.

The men were abducted by Hamas from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak on Oct. 7. “It was a complex operation, long in planning, awaiting the right conditions,” said Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht.

During the raid, the hostages were held on the second floor of a building and freed after an explosive charge breached the structure, amid heavy gunfire exchanges, Hecht added.

Prof. Arnon Afek, director of Sheba General Hospital, Israel’s largest, said, “Both hostages are now at Sheba medical center, in stable condition and receiving care.”

The Israeli military stated the airstrikes in Rafah were timed with the raid for extraction purposes.

Residents, speaking to Reuters via chat app, reported widespread panic in Rafah, with some fearing an Israeli ground offensive. Israeli planes, tanks, and ships participated in the strikes, hitting two mosques and several houses.

Hamas described the Rafah attack as part of Israel’s “genocidal war” against Palestinians.

U.S. President Joe Biden, in a Sunday call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, emphasized the need for a credible plan to ensure the safety of roughly 1 million people in Rafah, the White House reported.

Aid agencies warn an assault on Rafah would be catastrophic. Biden and Netanyahu’s 45-minute call followed U.S. concerns over civilian casualties in Gaza.

Netanyahu’s office said it ordered the military to develop an evacuation plan for Rafah and target four Hamas battalions there.

Hamas militants killed 1,200 in southern Israel and abducted at least 250 in their Oct. 7 incursion, Israeli figures show. In response, Israel’s military assault in Gaza has killed over 28,000 Palestinians, per Hamas-run health ministry data.

Netanyahu, in a Sunday interview, stated the number of Israeli hostages in Gaza justifies Israel’s military actions.

Hamas-run Aqsa Television quoted a senior Hamas leader warning that an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah could jeopardize hostage-exchange negotiations.

Egypt expressed concern about potential Israeli military actions in Rafah, citing “dire consequences” and calling for international efforts to protect the city.