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Israeli forces rescue two hostages in dramatic Gaza raid

The Israeli offensive has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians in the territory, displaced more than 80% of the population and triggered a massive humanitarian crisis.

More than 12,300 Palestinian children and young adolescents have been killed in the conflict, the Gaza Health Ministry announced on Monday. Around 8,400 women were also among those killed. This means that children and young adolescents account for around 43% of deaths, and women and minors together account for three-quarters.

The ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians, provided the detail at the AP’s request. Israel claims to have killed around 10,000 Hamas fighters but has provided no proof.

In the Hamas cross-border raid on October 7, around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed and the militants captured 250 people, according to Israeli authorities.

Israel has described Rafah as the last Hamas stronghold in the territory and signaled that its ground offensive could soon target the town on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip.

Israel says around 100 hostages are still being held by Hamas after dozens were freed during a ceasefire in November. Hamas also holds the remains of around 30 other people who were killed on October 7 or died in captivity.

The government has made the release of the hostages a priority objective of its war, as has the destruction of Hamas’s military and government capabilities. But as the fighting has dragged on, divisions have emerged in Israel over how to get them back.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said continued military pressure would allow the captives’ release, even as the hostages’ families and many of their supporters called on the government to reach another deal with Hamas.

Israeli army spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said special forces broke into a second-floor apartment in Rafah under fire at 1:49 a.m. Monday, accompanied by a minute later of airstrikes on surrounding areas. He said Hamas militants guarded the captives and rescue team members shielded the hostages with their bodies as the battle broke out.

The army identified the rescued people as Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, who were kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak on October 7. They also hold Argentinian nationality. They are among three hostages to be rescued; a female soldier was rescued in November.

The rescue, which Hagari said was based on accurate intelligence and planned for some time, is a morale booster for Israelis but a small step toward freeing the remaining hostages, who are believed to be scattered and hidden in tunnels.

Har’s son-in-law, Idan Begerano, who saw the released captives at the hospital where they were flown, said the two men were thin and pale, but communicated well and were aware of their surroundings.

Begerano said Har told him immediately after seeing him: “You have a birthday today, mazal tov. » The men shared a long, tearful embrace with their loved ones at the hospital, according to a video released by Netanyahu’s office.

The airstrikes hit crowded Rafah in the middle of the night and dozens of explosions were heard around 2 a.m. Ashraf al-Qidra, a health ministry spokesman, said at least 67 people, including women and children, were killed in the operation. strikes.

Al-Qidra said rescuers were still searching through the rubble. An Associated Press journalist counted at least 50 bodies at Abu Youssef al-Najjar hospital in Rafah.

Mohamed Zoghroub, a Palestinian living in Rafah, said he saw a black jeep speeding through the town, followed by clashes and heavy airstrikes.

“We found ourselves running with our children, because of the airstrikes, in all directions,” he said, speaking from an area razed by bombing.

Images circulating on social media from the Kuwaiti Rafah hospital showed dead or injured children. The images could not immediately be verified but were consistent with AP reporting.

A young man could be seen carrying the body of an infant who he said had been killed during the attacks. He said the girl, his neighbor’s daughter, was born and killed during the war.

“Let Netanyahu come and see: is this one of your designated targets? he said.

Netanyahu said sending ground troops to Rafah was essential to achieving Israel’s war goals. On Sunday, the White House said President Joe Biden had warned Netanyahu that Israel should not conduct a military operation there without a “credible and enforceable” plan to protect civilians.

More than half of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents are now crowded into Rafah, where hundreds of thousands live in vast tent camps and crowded UN shelters.

Biden’s remarks, made in a phone call with Netanyahu, were his strongest language yet on a possible operation.

Discussions about the possibility of a ceasefire agreement took up much of the call, a senior U.S. administration official said. The official said that after weeks of diplomacy, a “framework” is now “pretty much” in place for a deal that could see the release of remaining hostages held by Hamas in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and an end to the fights.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations, acknowledged that “gaps remain” but declined to elaborate. The official said military pressure in recent weeks on Hamas in the southern city of Khan Younis has helped bring the group closer to agreeing to a deal.

Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the call. Hamas’ Al-Aqsa TV channel earlier quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying that any invasion of Rafah would “blow up” the talks mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar.

Biden and Netanyahu spoke after two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said Egypt was threatening to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if troops were sent to Rafah.

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