Israel freed two Israeli-Argentinian hostages in Rafah on Monday under the cover of airstrikes which local health officials said killed 67 Palestinians and wounded dozens in the southern Gaza city, the last refuge of about a million displaced civilians.
A joint operation by the Israeli military, the domestic Shin Bet security service, and the Special Police Unit in Rafah freed Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Hare, 70, the military said.
They were among 250 people seized during the October 7 raid by Hamas militants that triggered Israel’s war on Gaza.
More than four months on, much of the densely-populated strip of land on the Mediterranean is in ruins, with 28,340 Palestinians dead and 67,984 wounded, according to Gaza health officials, who say many others are buried under rubble.
The Israeli military said 31 hostages have since died, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday’s rescue showed that military pressure should continue, brushing aside international alarm at its plans for a ground assault on Rafah.
“Fernando and Louis, welcome home,” he said, saluting the Israeli forces who rescued them.
“Only continued military pressure, until total victory, will bring about the release of all of our hostages,” Netanyahu added.
The Gaza health ministry said 67 Palestinians had been killed overnight and the number could rise as rescue operations were underway.
A Reuters journalist at the scene saw a vast area of rubble where buildings, including a mosque, had been destroyed.
“Why did you kill my family while they were sleeping? They are children. I’ve been collecting my family’s body parts since the morning, they were in parts, I couldn’t recognise them, I only recognised their toes or fingers,” said Ibrahim Hassouna as a woman knelt over the body of a young child nearby.
The hostages were being held on the second floor of a building that was breached with explosives during the raid, which saw heavy exchanges of gunfire with surrounding buildings, an Israeli military spokesman said.
“We’ve been working a long time on this operation. We were waiting for the right conditions,” Lt Col. Richard Hecht said.
The Argentinian government thanked Israel for the rescue of the two men, who it said were dual nationals of Argentina. A photograph showed them in hospital, sitting on a sofa alongside relatives and looking frail but relieved.
Hassouna said his relatives were killed at least 4 km (2 miles) from the military operation.
“We were displaced from the north; we have nothing to do with anything. Why did you bomb us? Please justify,” he said.
Israel’s military said airstrikes had coincided with the raid to allow its forces to be extracted.
People in Rafah said two mosques and several residential buildings were hit in more than an hour of strikes by Israeli warplanes, tanks, and ships, causing widespread panic among Gazans woken from their sleep.
Hamas said the attack on Rafah was a continuation of a “genocidal war” and forced displacement attempts Israel has waged against the Palestinian people.
Hamas militants killed 1,200 people in southern Israel in the October 7 incursion that sparked the war, according to Israeli tallies.
Israel said Hamas has four battalions in Rafah.