Israeli army rescues two hostages amid deadly airstrikes on Rafah

TEL AVIV — Israel’s military rescued two hostages overnight Monday against a backdrop of heavy 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-Argentinian 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” and were transported via military helicopters for further medical examination in Israel.

“I salute our brave warriors for the bold action that led to their liberation. 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,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Monday.

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

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

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 — and more than 100 hostages remain in Hamas captivity.

Netanyahu and Defense Minster Yoav Gallant accompanied Israel’s military chief as the raid unfolded overnight.

At least 50 Palestinians were killed in the Israeli operation, according to local media reports.

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.

Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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