Israel freed two hostages from their Hamas captors in a dramatic special forces raid but faced Western warnings against launching a broader ground offensive on the teeming Gazan city of Rafah.
The hostages were identified as Israeli-Argentinian men Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70. Commandos covered them with their own bodies to protect them while a firefight raged with Hamas guards around the second-floor apartment in Rafah where they were being held, Israeli military officials said.
They were both abducted from a kibbutz on October 7 when Hamas terrorists killed 1,200 people during raids into southern Israel. A total of 134 hostages were left in captivity after various releases, but it is not known how many remain alive.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been under strong pressure from their relatives to do more to get them out. Prior to the two men, only one hostage had been safely rescued - a woman soldier in November.
Described by one relative as being pale and thin, Mr Marman and Mr Har were taken to a nearby safe area, given a preliminary check by doctors and airlifted to a hospital in central Israel.
The rescue brought some cheer to Israelis but it was done in parallel to diversionary air strikes on the southern border city of Rafah where 1.4 million people are now huddled, including many who fled Israeli bombardment further north.
Rafah is encircled by Israeli forces and Egypt has stepped up its border security, leaving people there no way out. One Palestinian woman, Ghada al Kord, told BBC Radio 4 Today’s programme that they were “awaiting death”.
Up to 100 Palestinians including women and children were killed during the commando raid, according to Palestinian officials, who say that Israel’s war has claimed more than 28,000 lives and displaced over 80 per cent of Gaza’s people.
The hostages were being held on the second floor of a building that was breached with an explosive charge during the raid, which saw heavy exchanges of gunfire with surrounding buildings.
Spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hecht said: "It was a very complex operation.
“We’ve been working a long time on this operation. We were waiting for the right conditions.”
The Israeli military said the air strike on Rafah coincided with the raid to allow its forces to be extracted.
Mr Netanyahu says Rafah is the last redoubt of Hamas in Gaza and has ordered his armed forces to prepare for a ground offensive, despite US President Joe Biden warning against one without a “credible and executable” plan to protect civilians.
Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron tweeted over the weekend that he was “deeply concerned about the prospect of a military offensive in Rafah”, and security minister Tom Tugendhat said this morning on BBC Breakfast that the Palestinians’ plight under both Hamas rule and Israeli bombardment was “utterly depressing”.
Asked if there was a plan to allow safe passage for people trapped in Rafah, Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner declined to comment on “operational plannings” but stressed on the Today programme: “We are very, very attentive to our allies in the US and in the UK.”
Aid agencies say an assault on Rafah would be catastrophic. It is the last relatively safe place in an enclave devastated by Israel's military offensive.
US President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday that Israel should not launch a military operation in Rafah without a credible plan to ensure the safety of the roughly 1 million people sheltering there, the White House said.Biden and Mr Netanyahu spoke for about 45 minutes, days after the US leader said Israel's military response in the Gaza Strip had been "over the top" and expressed grave concern over the rising civilian death toll in the Palestinian enclave.
Netanyahu's office has said that it had ordered the military to develop a plan to evacuate Rafah and destroy four Hamas battalions it says are deployed there.
Hamas militants killed 1,200 people in southern Israel and abducted at least 250 in their October 7 attack, according to Israeli tallies. Israel has responded with a military assault on the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
Mr Netanyahu said in an interview aired on Sunday that "enough" of the 132 remaining Israeli hostages held in Gaza were alive to justify Israel's war in the region.
Hamas-run Aqsa Television on Sunday quoted a senior Hamas leader as saying any Israeli ground offensive in Rafah would "blow up" the hostage exchange negotiations.