Two Israeli-Argentinian men taken captive by Hamas on October 7 were rescued on Monday in an early morning raid in which the Israeli military carried out airstrikes that local officials said killed around 100 people in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.
The hostages, 60-year-old Fernando Simon Marman and 70-year-old Louis Har, had spent 128 days in captivity. Both men are in relatively good condition and have since reunited with their families.
Israel Defense Forces spokesman Daniel Hagari told reporters on Monday the complex rescue operation was conducted after receiving “highly sensitive and valuable intelligence.” It involved Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, police special forces and an IDF tank brigade.
The operation began at 1:49 a.m. local time, when Israeli special forces entered the building where the hostages were held. The duo were found on the second floor “in the hands of Hamas terrorists.” Hamas militants were also stationed in adjacent buildings, Hagari said.
Israel’s ground forces encountered resistance throughout the operation. Once the hostages were recovered, they were protectively hugged by members of the police special forces as they were escorted out under fire from Hamas, according to Hagari, who said they were taken to a safe place within Rafah for medical attention and then airlifted out of Gaza by helicopter.
Har and Marman’s rescue marks just the second time since last year’s terror attack that the Israeli military has successfully retrieved hostages in Gaza. A previous attempt in December went awry when Israeli soldiers shot and killed three Israeli hostages in Gaza after misidentifying them as threats.
While the operation to free the two men will be celebrated in Israel, significant loss of life was reported inside Gaza as a result of the Israeli Air Force providing “aerial cover” for the ground operation.
Airstrikes began 1:50 a.m., a minute after the raid began, the IDF said.
The Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) said that more than 100 people were killed in strikes in Rafah overnight, while the Hamas-controlled health ministry in Gaza said 94 people lost their lives. Neither group specified how many of those who died were militants.
The director of Abu Yousef Al-Najjar Hospital said medical facilities in Rafah “cannot handle the large number of injuries due to the Israeli occupation’s bombardment.”
A second video showed a girl wiping tears from her eyes as she described the airstrikes. “I was going to the bathroom and the strikes were ongoing. Suddenly I found fire in our house,” the girl says in the video. “Then I went to the bathroom and all the walls collapsed on me.”
The Rafah municipality said on Monday at least two mosques and around a dozen homes were struck.
A spokesman for the US State Department said Monday that the US does not view the strikes as “the launch of a full-scale offensive” in Rafah.
A potential incursion into Rafah has prompted concern in the international community, as the city has become a last refuge for Palestinians fleeing south to avoid Israel’s air and ground campaigns. More than 1.3 million people are believed to be in Rafah, the majority displaced from other parts of Gaza, according to the United Nations.
There are severe shortages of food, water, medicine and shelter, and the city has been described as a “pressure cooker of despair” by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
A military campaign in Rafah would likely result in a bloodbath, as people there have no remaining escape route; the city borders Egypt, and the sole crossing into that country has been closed for months, along with the rest of Gaza’s borders.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has brushed off criticism of plans for the ground assault – saying calls not to enter Rafah are like telling Israel to lose the war. He pledged to provide safe passage for civilians, but offered few details.
According to the Gazan health ministry, more than 28,100 people have been killed in the enclave since October 7.
Hostages in good condition
The IDF later released a pair of videos of what it said showed the moments the two hostages were rescued from Rafah. One aerial video showed an exchange of fire during the rescue and a voice of an unknown person saying, “the hostages are in our hands.”
In the second video, soldiers are seen comforting the rescued hostages in a vehicle shortly after the operation. When asked how they were feeling, one of the hostages said: “Shocked, shocked, all right.”
The pair, Har and Marman, were transferred early Monday to Sheba Medical Center at Tel HaShomer, according to the IDF, and were in good medical condition.
Marman’s niece, Geffen Sigal Ilan, said the reunion was “very emotional.”
“I couldn’t believe I was hugging him, I was so happy,” she said.
The families said they were surprised by the news of the release, which they received in the middle of the night. Both men appeared to be doing well, but months of captivity had taken a physical toll.
“They’re a little thin, a little different, they lost a little weight,” Illan said. “They were in an inhumane situation.”
Netanyahu has been under mounting pressure from the Israeli public to secure the release of captives in Gaza, with some families of those held hostage being openly critical of the government’s tactics.
The duo had been kidnapped from the Nir Yitzhak kibbutz, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said. Nir Yitzhak was one of multiple kibbutzim close to the border with Gaza that came under attack by Hamas militants during their October 7 rampage which saw some 1,200 people killed and more than 240 taken hostage.
The office of Argentina’s President Javier Milei praised Israel for the rescue, and thanked the Israeli forces behind the operation.
Gallant hailed what he called an “impressive release operation” in a statement on X, formerly Twitter, saying he had followed the operation in the Command Center along with Netanyahu and senior commanders.
Netanyahu released a statement Monday welcoming the two hostages back, and praising the Israeli forces. “Only the continuation of military pressure, until complete victory, will result in the release of all our hostages,” he said.
After Monday’s rescue, the total number of hostages left in Gaza is 134, Hagari said. Of that number, 130 hostages are from the October 7 attack – with 29 dead and 101 believed to be alive. The other four had been held in Gaza prior to the attack.
Most hostages are being held by Hamas, though some are also reportedly held by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Israel and Hamas have been unable to reach an agreement to release more hostages since one in November collapsed. That agreement resulted in a weeklong pause in fighting in exchange for the release of more than 100 hostages, mostly elderly women and children.
Hamas condemned the strikes on Monday, calling them “forced displacement attempts” and “horrific massacres against defenseless civilians and displaced children, women, and the elderly.”
It also accused US President Joe Biden and his administration of bearing “full responsibility” for the civilian deaths.
The high Palestinian death toll connected to the operation caused deep concern for the Biden administration, a senior US administration official said Monday. The US is still gathering information on the details of the rescue operation, including how exactly the operation unfolded and how many civilians may have been killed, the official added.
On Sunday, Biden and Netanyahu discussed a deal to secure the release of hostages in Gaza, according to a senior administration official, as well as Israel’s anticipated ground assault on Rafah.
According to the White House, Biden “reaffirmed his view that a military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there.”
Matthew Miller, the US State Department spokesman, reiterated Monday that the US does not support “any military campaign in Rafah.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Daniel Hagari’s name.