Overnight and into Monday Israel's ground and air operation against Hamas in the southern Gaza city of Rafah appears to have ramped up into a full scale assault, but which has already born fruit for Israel with the freeing of two hostages, a rarity on the active battlefield.
"In a complex overnight operation, Israeli special forces rescued two hostages from Hamas captivity in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip early Monday, marking the first successful extraction of captives held by the terror group in months," The Times of Israel reports.
The rescue operation came amid running gun battles and air support deep into Rafah, and by the end of it Fernando Marman, 61, and Louis Har, 70 were returned in good health by the police's elite Yamam counterterrorism unit and the IDF.
They were among the 253 hostages taken on Oct.7, and were abducted from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak. Their rescue strongly suggests more hostages are likely present in Rafah, which borders Egypt, and which has seen some one million Palestinian refugees pour into the city and its environs after months of war in the Strip.
As for the rarity of an IDF ground rescue operation, it was only the second such successful operation of its kind, after the late October return to freedom of soldier Or Megidish. IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said the elite counterterror team entered Rafah at around 1AM and "carried out a very complex action on the premises and the second floor where the hostages were held."
Firefights had broken out at nearby buildings during the rescue, and Hagari further explained, "There was intense firepower from the air. Fire was opened from nearby buildings. The Air Force struck intensively there."
This successful and rare hostage recovery from the battlefield is also being seen as a badly needed political and decision-making 'win' for PM Netanyahu, given he's been under intense domestic pressure especially from victims' families to implement a ceasefire and new hostage/prisoner exchange. He has resisted while dialing up the military campaign.
Last week he called Hamas' new conditions for a truce "delusional" and vowed to not stop the Gaza war until "total victory" and the eradication of the terror group. This has also put him on collision course with Washington, which has warned that unless civilians can be evacuated, there will be catastrophe and a blood bath.
According to a Sunday phone call between President Joe Biden and Netanyahu:
President Joe Biden on Sunday told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel’s planned ground invasion in Rafah “should not proceed” without a plan to ensure the safety of the more than 1 million people living there, according to the White House.
"He also called for urgent and specific steps to increase the throughput and consistency of humanitarian assistance to innocent Palestinian civilians," he readout said. And he 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."
Currently there are reports saying Israel has already bombed refugee tent settlements, which have sprang up across broad swathes of the southern Strip since the war began last October, and as much of the population was forced out of northern Gaza...
ISRAEL BOMBED A REFUGEE CAMP IN RAFAH THIS IS THE AFTERMATH pic.twitter.com/aNzoX0l5nH— Sulaiman Ahmed (@ShaykhSulaiman) February 12, 2024
Thus far Monday at least 67 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli assault on Rafah, which has also included shelling from the sea. According to Al Jazeera, hospitals continue to be high risk areas and have witnessed fighting in their environs: "Israeli snipers have killed seven people inside Nasser Hospital in the southern city of Khan Younis, the spokesman for Gaza’s Health Ministry says," AJ writes.
Hamas' Al-Aqsa television network has meanwhile warned that Israel's ground offensive on Rafah will "blow up" the captive exchange negotiations. Though the US has continued holding out hope of cobbling together a truce deal, it appears to already be effectively dead.