Israel on Monday released two hostages held in Rafah, the final target of its offensive in the Gaza Strip, during a nighttime commando operation accompanied by deadly strikes on this city where hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians are refugees.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week ordered the army to prepare an offensive on this town in southern Gaza, where, according to the UN, there are 1.4 million Palestinians who have fled the war that has been raging since. four months between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.
Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed his determination to defeat Hamas on Monday, while the prospect of an offensive on the overpopulated city raises serious concerns abroad. “Only the continuation of military pressure, until complete victory, will result in the release of all our hostages,” he declared.
During the night, Israeli forces carried out a ground operation in Rafah, supported by bombing, to free Fernando Marman, 60, and Luis Har, 70, two Israeli-Argentinian hostages kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak in the south. of Israel, during the attack carried out by Hamas on October 7 against Israel, which started the war.
“Around midnight, we heard loud explosions, as if hell had opened on the civilians,” Abou Souhhaib, a resident of the al-Shaboura neighborhood, told AFP.
“We heard the sound of helicopters firing,” he added. “There was heavy gunfire, as if it was a very big battle.”
After a night under the bombs which dug immense craters in the ground, survivors searched through the rubble in the morning, terrified at the idea of a ground assault on the city where they are now trapped against the closed border with the Egypt.
Israeli forces burst “with explosives” into the second floor of a building where the hostages were being held, “opened fire on nearby targets and freed the hostages,” the army and government said.
“Fire then erupted from this building and neighboring buildings followed by prolonged fighting, during which dozens of Hamas targets were targeted by airstrikes in order to allow soldiers to leave the scene,” the prime minister’s office said. minister.
The Hamas Ministry of Health reported “around 100 deaths” in the bombings on Rafah.
” Hurry up ”
The two hostages were airlifted to Sheba Hospital in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, where they “are in stable condition”, according to Arnon Afek, the director of the establishment.
“We saw them (…) there were a lot of tears, hugs and few words,” said Idan Bejerano, Luis Har’s son-in-law, in front of the hospital.
“We are happy today, but we did not win. “This is just one more step towards the return home” of the hostages still held in Gaza, he stressed, echoing the families who are pressing the government to accept a new truce agreement with Hamas. including the release of the hostages.
Israel estimates that around 130 hostages are still being held in Gaza, 29 of whom are believed to have died, out of around 250 people kidnapped in Israel on October 7. A week-long truce in November allowed the release of 105 hostages and 240 Palestinians held by Israel.
Hamas warned on Sunday that an offensive on Rafah would “torpedo” any agreement for the release of the hostages.
But Benjamin Netanyahu said he was determined to defeat Hamas entrenched in its “last bastion” of Rafah. “Victory is within reach,” he said on Sunday on the American channel ABC News.
Israel will provide “safe passage for the civilian population so that they can leave” the city, he added, without specifying where civilians could take refuge.
US President Joe Biden, whose country is Israel’s main ally, urged Benjamin Netanyahu to “guarantee” the security of the population before an assault.
The United Kingdom on Monday called on Israel to “think seriously” before any major offensive in Rafah.
” Nowhere to go ”
The war was sparked on October 7 by an unprecedented attack by Hamas commandos infiltrated from Gaza into southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP count. made from official Israeli data.
In retaliation, Israel vowed to “destroy” the Islamist movement, in power in Gaza since 2007, which it considers a terrorist organization along with the United States and the European Union.
The Israeli offensive has left 28,340 dead in the Gaza Strip, the vast majority of them civilians, according to the Hamas Ministry of Health, which on Monday counted 164 dead in 24 hours.
“Under current conditions,” Washington “could not support a military operation in Rafah due to the density of the population,” warned a senior American official, stressing that the population has “nowhere to go.”
Around 1.7 million people, according to the UN, out of a total of 2.4 million inhabitants, have fled their homes since October 7 in the devastated Palestinian territory, besieged by Israel and plunged into a humanitarian crisis. major. Many were displaced several times, fleeing further south as the fighting spread.
Rafah, which has become a gigantic encampment, is the last urban center where the Israeli army has not yet launched a ground assault and the main entry point for humanitarian aid, insufficient to meet the needs of the population threatened in midwinter by famine and epidemics.
Details of the Israeli commando operation
A deluge of fire to cover a lightning commando operation: Israeli forces released two hostages held in Rafah during the night from Sunday to Monday, the final target of its offensive in the Gaza Strip. Here is the film of the events.
1:49 a.m. : Israeli special forces use explosives to force entry into a building in the heart of Rafah, where Fernando Marman and Luis Har, kidnapped on October 7 during the Hamas attack, are detained on the second floor by Palestinian fighters , explained the spokesperson for the Israeli army, Daniel Hagari. This is the start of an “intense battle” guided and followed live by the heads of the army, the police and Shin Beth (domestic intelligence) from the headquarters of the latter, in the presence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.
1h50 : A flood of fire falls on Rafah, waking up the inhabitants. AFP journalists on site heard “dozens of strikes” and explosions in several parts of the city. These Israeli bombings aim to facilitate the commando intervention, in particular by hitting Hamas fighters in the surrounding area, according to the army. The commando “extracts Luis and Fernando from the apartment and evacuates them under fire” in Rafah “to a secure area”. There, they are quickly examined by doctors, before being airlifted to Sheba Hospital in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, where they undergo medical examinations, adds the same source.
2:55 a.m. : Hamas reports 50 Israeli aerial bombardments which left at least 52 dead and dozens injured. According to witnesses and Palestinian security sources, six houses and two mosques were targeted.
Around 3 a.m. : Luis Har’s family receives a phone call from Israeli authorities. “They told us, ‘We have Fernando and Luis, come see them at the hospital,’” said Idan Bejerano, Luis Har’s son-in-law. “In shock”, the family jumped into a car and went to meet them at Sheba hospital, where the two men, bedridden, “seemed to be doing well”. At that time there was “a lot of crying, hugs, but few words”, according to Mr. Bejerano. “They hugged each other in silence”, it was “very moving”, hospital director Arnon Afek told AFP.
4:39 a.m. : Israeli forces announce the release of Fernando Marman and Luis Har during a military operation in Rafah, and their transfer to Sheba Hospital.
7:02 a.m. : Hamas condemns the Rafah attack which, according to it, left “nearly a hundred dead”.
10:12 a.m. : Benjamin Netanyahu salutes in a press release the “brave warriors” for the “bold operation” which led to their release.