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Israel rescues 2 hostages, but Gaza officials say dozens were killed in the operation

This photo provided by the Israeli military, an Israeli Air Force helicopter carrying what the military said are two released hostages, at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, Israel, Monday, Feb, 12. 2024. (Israel Defense Forces via AP)
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This photo provided by the Israeli military, an Israeli Air Force helicopter carrying what the military said are two released hostages, at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, Israel, Monday, Feb, 12. 2024. (Israel Defense Forces via AP)

RAFAH, Gaza — The Israeli military said on Monday that special forces rescued two Israeli hostages held in Gaza.

Heavy airstrikes were conducted during the night. Hospital officials in Gaza said that at least 50 people were killed in the strikes while more bodies were being brought to hospitals.

"This was a complex rescue operation under fire in the heart of Rafah, based on highly sensitive and valuable intelligence," said the Israeli military in a statement.

Israel's military identified the rescued hostages as Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70. Both were kidnapped by Hamas militants on Oct. 7 from the Nir Yitzhak kibbutz, the Israeli military said.

Both were held on the second floor of a home in the city of Rafah, according to the the Israeli military, which said that a special forces team broke inside the home and engaged in a firefight, killing militants.

The hostages were then airlifted to Israel and the military said they were in good medical shape and taken to a hospital.

The operation was the second successful Israeli hostage rescue during the war. Israel says more than 100 hostages taken during the Oct. 7 attacks are still being held in Gaza. More than 1,200 people were killed in the attacks, according to Israel.

The raid came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signals that Israeli forces will soon launch a broader offensive inside Rafah to root out Hamas militants from the city.

On Sunday, the White House said that President Biden cautioned Netanyahu about moving into Rafah, telling him 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." It was the first time that Biden had publicly cautioned Israel against its planned operation in Rafah.

Nowhere to go

But with the bombardment intensifying in the area, people in Rafah have been left asking where should they go.

Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza, borders Egypt, and normally has a population of about 250,000 people.

But the United Nations saysthat more than half of Gaza's population of over 2 million people are now crammed in Rafah, after fleeing Israeli bombardment further north in the region.

Among those displaced by the fighting is Jihad Abu Amer, who told NPR that he and his family were forced to flee to Rafah and they now worry about a broader Israeli invasion of the city.

"This operation will be a massacre because the city is so dense," said Abu Amer. "It's a sad city and a poor city and destroyed, and it's never mentioned on the map except during war," he continued.

Yousef al-Syersawi's family was displaced twice — once to Khan Younis and then to Rafah.

"Their threats are to be taken seriously," he said of the signals of an Israeli invasion. "Because of the reality we've lived, it isn't far fetched that the occupation forces enter Rafah and finish their military operation"

As the city's residents await what will happen, life in Rafah has become increasingly difficult.

The U.N.has said that Rafah has produced a year's worth of garbage in the past three months and there is a scarcity of food, clean water and sanitation that's leading to disease.

Palestinians also complain of a lack of goods and high prices for things that are for sale.

"The citizen has become at a loss for what to do," said al-Syersawi. "Face the occupation or the very high prices."

On Friday, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered his military to come up with a plan to evacuate Rafah in preparation for a possible ground invasion.

"Where are we supposed to go?" said Zeyad Abouloun. "Someone answer me that question, the whole world is against us — America and Israel and the Arabs — where are we supposed to go?"

Egypt has refused to take in refugees from Rafah, saying that Israel wants an expulsion of Palestinians with no guarantees that they will allow them to go back.

Egypt is also worried it will have a humanitarian crisis on its hands that it won't be able to handle.

"We wish that Egypt would shelter us even if temporarily," said Abu Amer. "And when the battle is over, they can return us."

But Palestinians in Rafah say that there is is only place they want to go back to.

"We hope this war will end, and people go back to their homes," Abu Amer said. "We don't want anything else and we want this blood bath to end."

Network of tunnels

Meanwhile, there are continuing negotiations on a ceasefire and hostage deal slated to start in Cairo on Tuesday, where U.S., Egyptian, Israeli and Hamas officials are expected to attend.

The talks come as the Israeli military said on Saturday that it found a network of tunnels under the Gaza headquarters of the main U.N. Palestinian relief agency, known asUNRWA.

In video released by the army, tunnels were shown lined with electrical wires and rooms holding electrical supplies. The Israeli army accuses UNRWA of supplying the tunnels with electricity.

UNRWA said in a statement Saturday that it did not know what was underneath the headquarters, but the reports were worth an investigation.

TheU.S. paused its funding to UNRWA after Israeli allegations that some of its employees were involved in the Oct. 7 attack. Now, UNRWA said it will run out of funding and be unable to keep providing aid by the end of February.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.
Anas Baba