For Israel, a rare day of joy amid bloodshed as 4 hostages are rescued alive

JERUSALEM — Israelis, grinding into their ninth month of a war that has seemingly devolved into a military quagmire, a diplomatic stalemate and an object of global condemnation, finally had reason to cheer Saturday, and cheer they did.

Minutes after news broke that four of the remaining Israeli hostages had been safely plucked from the Gaza Strip in a daytime raid, shouts erupted on sidewalks and beaches, and crowds formed outside the hospitals where the hostages were whisked.

On television, anchors cried during their breaking news alerts, as did Israeli President Isaac Herzog during his call to Noa Argamani, one of the best known of more than 250 hostages taken to Gaza during the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7.

“Noa, I am so excited to hear your voice — it just brings tears to my eyes,” Herzog said to the 26 year-old, who had been captured on video screaming “Don’t kill me!” as she was carried into Gaza on the back of a motorcycle.


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Argamani, one of the dozens of young Israelis captured at a desert dance festival, became a symbol of the agonizing futility — and growing fury — Israelis felt as the months passed and hope for the hostages dwindled.

Since November, negotiations for a cease-fire deal to swap hostages for Palestinian prisoners have gone nowhere. Street protests have grown massive and sometimes violent, with hostage families demanding more action from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The government has splintered and the emergency war cabinet that includes opposition leaders is on the verge of collapse.

Most relatives of the hostages have received few if any “signs of life” from their loved ones, save for the rare Hamas propaganda video, such as the one released more than a week ago that appeared to feature Argamani’s voice.

But on Saturday, at least temporarily, Israel was united in joy. The war in Gaza raged on, with at least 125 Palestinians killed Saturday in actions around Nuseirat, where the hostages were rescued, according to doctors and health officials at two local hospitals. The military also remained poised to escalate its fight against Hezbollah along the border with Lebanon.

The Israeli commander who was killed during the rescue operation Saturday was mourned, and the families of the remaining 120 hostages continued their tortuous wait. But the traumatized country allowed itself a few hours to be delirious.

Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s chief political rival, who had scheduled a news conference for late Saturday reportedly to resign from the war cabinet, canceled that event and instead announced that his “heart is filled with the return of Noa, Andrey, Almog and Shlomi.”

Israel’s joy came amid another wave of horror inside Gaza. The Israel Defense Forces had said earlier Saturday that it was “targeting terrorist infrastructure” in Nuseirat, a refugee camp in central Gaza. Later, it announced that the four hostages had been rescued from that area in one of the most complex operations it has mounted. The death toll in Gaza soared.

The wounded and dead had begun to pour into al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, the closest medical facility to Nuseirat, by early afternoon, according to witnesses and social media posts. A graphic video from the hospital, released by the Gaza Health Ministry, showed a crowded trauma bay with bodies laid out on the bloody floor.

According to Khalil al-Degran, a spokesman for the hospital, at least 55 dead and “tens of wounded” had arrived at the hospital. “There are still a lot of dead and injured in the streets that have [not] reached the hospital yet,” he said at news conference, adding that the hospital “cannot absorb this number of dead and injured.”

In Israel, word of the rescue broke in the middle of Jewish Sabbath, when observant Israelis stay away from television and the internet. But social media lit up as people spread the notices posted by the military: A “complex special daytime operation in Nuseirat” had freed four of the 75 or so hostages thought to remain alive in captivity.

Like Argamani, the three other hostages rescued Saturday were dragged from the Nova music festival. Almog Meir Jan, 22, from the central Israel town of Or Yehuda, attended the festival a day before he was scheduled to start a new tech job. Shlomi Ziv, a 41-year-old from Moshav Elkosh, and Andrey Kozlov, a 27-year-old recent immigrant from Russia, both worked security at the rave.

All were taken to area hospitals, reportedly in good health, to be examined by doctors and meet their families. A video of Argamani being greeted by her father went immediately viral in Israel.

Argamani’s mother, Liora, who is undergoing treatment for Stage 4 brain cancer at a hospital in Tel Aviv, was not immediately present for her daughter’s initial intake at a separate hospital. She had campaigned for her daughter’s release and, starting a course of experimental drugs to buy more time, had pleaded with Hamas to let her see Noa one more time.

“My heart hurts the most, more than the cancer,” Liora told The Washington Post in December at her temporary apartment in Tel Aviv. “I believe she will come home.”

On Saturday, she did. It was not immediately clear if Liora Argamani was able to see her daughter. But Yafa Ohan, a relative who helps care for the mother, said the family was gathered at Sheba Medical Center.

“We can’t talk now — everybody is here,” Ohan said over a din of shouts and cheers. “But everything is okay now. Everything is okay. She is safe.”

More than 250 hostages were taken on Oct. 7. A handful of female captives were released by Hamas in addition to the dozens freed in a November cease-fire. One woman was rescued in a previous IDF operation. The rest have been the subject of a chilling running tally as more and more of them have been confirmed to have died in captivity, including three that were mistakenly killed by Israeli soldiers when trying to escape.

The Hostages Families Forum, the lead advocacy group, hailed the rescue of the four. But it also made clear that pressure to get the rest out will not let up.

“Now, with the joy that is washing over Israel, the Israeli government must remember its commitment to bring back all 120 hostages still held by Hamas — the living for rehabilitation, the murdered for burial,” the group said in a statement.

Rubin reported from Tel Aviv. Claire Parker in Cairo and Mohamad El Chamaa in Beirut contributed to this report.

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