Israeli army rescues two hostages amid deadly airstrikes on Rafah

TEL AVIV — Israel’s military rescued two hostages overnight Monday under the cover of deadly airstrikes on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, unleashing a wave of hope across Israel and dread among the 1.4 million Palestinians who have sought refuge in the area that Israeli leaders have pinpointed as the war’s next battleground.

The two hostages, Fernando Simon Merman, 60, and Luis Har, 70, both dual Israeli-Argentine citizens, were abducted from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak on Oct. 7. They were taken captive with three female relatives who were released during a week-long cease-fire in late November.

Israel’s military said Merman and Har were both in “good medical condition.” They were transported via military helicopters to Sheba Tel Hashomer Medical Center in Israel, where medical staff said their condition was “stable” and where they were reunited with their families.

Biden presses Netanyahu on plans for hostage release, protecting civilians in Rafah

“I salute our brave warriors for the bold action that led to their liberation,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Monday. “Only the continuation of military pressure until complete victory will result in the release of all our abductees. We will not miss any opportunity to bring them home.”

Hamas said the overnight operation, conducted amid heavy bombing throughout the area, was part of “horrific massacres against defenseless civilians and displaced children, women and the elderly.”

At least 67 Palestinians, including women and children, were killed in the operation, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Wounded Palestinians were taken to the Kuwait Specialty Hospital on Feb. 12, following Israeli airstrikes on Rafah, southern Gaza. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Loay Ayyoub/Reuters)

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, an Israeli military spokesman, said the rescue maneuver, based on extensive military intelligence, began at 1:49 a.m., when special forces broke into a second-floor apartment in Rafah.

“The necessary preparations were made and we waited for conditions that would allow it to be executed,” Hagari said in a statement Monday morning.

Armed Hamas militants were guarding the men and were also spread throughout the building, he said. A minute later, Israel carried out a series of airstrikes. Israeli soldiers shielded the hostages with their bodies as exchanges of heavy fire erupted in several places between the Israeli troops and the Hamas fighters.

Netanyahu and Defense Minster Yoav Gallant were with Israel’s military chief as the raid unfolded overnight. Two Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting, the military said.

The event was only the second successful rescue mission since the start of the ground incursion into Gaza in late October — on Oct. 30, the IDF rescued a female hostage. More than 100 hostages remain in Hamas captivity, in addition to 29 others who are believed to be dead, most of them killed during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, according to Israeli officials.

Many of the families of the hostages and the thousands of Israelis who have joined them in street protests have called on the government to agree to a hostage release deal with Hamas, saying that their time is running out and questioning whether military operations are a realistic strategy.

Argentine President Javier Milei lauded the rescue operation Monday morning and said in a social media post that in a meeting with Netanyahu last week in Jerusalem, he requested “the release of every one of the Argentine hostages” and continued to “maintain his condemnation of Hamas terrorism.”

The operation came hours after Netanyahu spoke on the phone with President Biden, who warned that an Israeli ground incursion into southern Gaza without appropriate accommodations for the civilian population would be seen as unacceptable to the United States, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the White House.

Young Israelis block aid to Gaza while IDF soldiers stand and watch

On Monday, it remained unclear how the rescue — lasting about an hour and limited in its scope — would affect Israel’s broader stated plans to launch a large-scale ground incursion into Rafah, where it says Hamas top leaders are hiding and still holding an estimated 101 hostages.

Egypt has reinforced its border, signaling that it would not accept an exodus of refugees fleeing the fighting. It has warned that an Israeli invasion of the area along its border could endanger Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt that has for decades stabilized the region.

The rescue operation was carried out amid negotiations to return the hostages in exchange for the release of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, as well as a halt in the fighting. Senior American, Egyptian and Qatari officials are expected to convene in Cairo on Tuesday, though it is still unclear if Israel will send a delegation.

“This rescue absolutely improves Israel’s chances to secure a hostage release deal,” Miki Zohar, a minister from Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, told The Post. “We also know that Hamas is very disturbed by our ability to enter Rafah.”

David Tsur, former head of Yamam, the special counterterrorism unit that was among the agencies involved in the overnight mission, said that because the talks have been so far unsuccessful, the Israeli army took advantage of the “very short window of opportunity” to free the hostages. But he said it will have consequences for the continuation of the war.

“This will definitely cause Hamas to enhance their security measures,” he said.

On Feb. 6, in response to negotiators’ proposal, Hamas called for Israel to release at least 1,500 Palestinian security prisoners, fully withdraw from Gaza, eventually agree to a permanent cease-fire, and work to reduce its sovereignty on the Temple Mount — demands rejected by Netanyahu as “delusional.”

In an interview with ABC News’s “This Week” program on Sunday, Netanyahu said that “victory is within reach” and that the Israeli army is “working out a detailed plan” to evacuate the civilian population from Rafah.

“Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying lose the war, keep Hamas there,” he said.

Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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