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Israeli forces rescue 2 hostages in Rafah and hammer the crowded city

The Israeli military announced the rescue of Fernando Marman and Louis Har in an overnight operation that saw a volley of airstrikes that Palestinian health authorities said killed at least 67 people.
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TEL AVIV — Israel’s military hailed the rescue of two hostages overnight in Rafah, while local officials said the raid killed dozens of people in the crowded, southern Gaza Strip city sheltering more than 1 million displaced people.

At least 67 people were killed in Israeli strikes, Palestinian Health Ministry spokesperson Dr. Ashraf Al-Qudra said. An NBC News crew that has been working on the ground in Gaza since the start of the war described the bombing in the area of Shaboura camp of Rafah as a strikingly violent and deadly assault.

Strikes rained down over Rafah as Israeli forces carried out the dramatic rescue of Fernando Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, which came amid mounting international concerns over a planned Israeli ground assault on Rafah.

Israeli forces retrieved the two Israeli men taken captive during the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in a “complex” overnight operation carried out "under fire in the heart of Rafah," Israel Defense Forces spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said.

Hostages Fernando Simon Marman, right, and Luis Har, second from left, hug relatives after being rescued from captivity in the Gaza Strip, at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, Israel, Monday, Feb. 12, 2024.
Freed hostages Fernando Simon Marman, right, and Luis Har, second from left, hug relatives at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, Israel, on Monday after being rescued from captivity in the Gaza Strip.Israeli army via AP

The operation included a "wave of strikes" that Hagari said helped "enable the force's disengagement" and strike Hamas operatives in the area.

The strikes set off widespread panic and chaos, according to NBC News' crew on the ground, with first responders and crowds of people rushing the killed and injured into the Kuwait hospital.

In video captured by NBC News' crew, mourners cradle their loved ones wrapped in bloodied shrouds and blankets, with one man crying over another as he strokes his cheek. One child lies motionless and partially wrapped in a white shroud, her head bloodied with a deep wound. A medical worker checks for the heartbeat of another girl before shaking her head as the motionless child is carried away.

Wounded Palestinians in Rafah
A wounded boy is treated at the Kuwait Hospital in Rafah on Monday. NBC News

The IDF had confirmed overnight that its forces conducted strikes in the area of Shaboura.

Asked to comment on the number of people Gazan health officials said had been killed in the raid, the IDF said Monday morning that it could not confirm statistics provided by Palestinian health authorities as it does not find those authorities "reliable."

Hagari said that Israeli forces had been preparing for the overnight operation "for some time" and that it was executed based on highly sensitive intelligence.

The IDF spokesman described how special forces breached a building "in the heart of Rafah" before locating Har and Marman on the second floor, where they were being held by armed Hamas militants.

A battle ensued, he said, with "heavy exchanges of fire at several locations simultaneously." Around the same time, he said, aerial fire was deployed in the area by the Israeli air force and Southern Command.

In a separate statement, the IDF, the Israeli Security Agency and Israel Police said both Har and Marman were in good medical condition and had been transferred for examination at the Sheba Tel-HaShomer Medical Center in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv.

Hospital officials confirmed to NBC News that the two men were receiving care there, while a photo released by Israeli officials showed them reuniting with loved ones at the medical facility.

"Fernando and Luis — Welcome back home," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Monday morning.

Hamas, meanwhile, condemned Israel's operations in Rafah.

Israel's offensive in Gaza has so far seen more than 28,000 people killed and and more than 67,700 injured, with thousands more missing and presumed dead, according to Palestinian health authorities.

And in recent days, concerns have mounted over Israel's plans to launch a ground assault on Rafah, where more than half of Gaza's roughly 2.3 million people have sought shelter after the Israeli military previously declared the city bordering Egypt a safe zone.

Israel announced on February 12 the rescue of two hostages in the southern Gaza city of Rafah.
People stand around large craters in the ground left by Israeli bombardments in Rafah on Monday.Said Khatib / AFP - Getty Images

With thousands of people crammed into tents and makeshift shelters in the city, locals and aid groups have warned that a ground assault on Rafah could result in disaster.

Palestinians have expressed growing worry and despair over Israel’s plans.

“We’re so scared. We don’t know where to go,” a young woman said. “There’s a lot of people here. I can’t even count them.”

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called reports of Israel’s plans to evacuate Palestinians from the city “extremely worrying.”

“Proceeding with the plan could have devastating consequences for the 1.4 million people who have nowhere else left to go,” he said in a post on X on Sunday as he called for a cease-fire.

President Joe Biden told Netanyahu on Sunday that Israel should not launch a military operation in Rafah without a "credible and executable" plan to ensure the safety of those sheltering there, the White House said in a statement.

Biden has been venting his frustration in recent private conversations over his inability to persuade Israel to change its military tactics in Gaza, and he has named Netanyahu as the primary obstacle, according to five people directly familiar with his comments.

Netanyahu told ABC News in an interview aired Sunday that an attack on Rafah was key to defeating Hamas. But while he has offered reassurances that there will be safe passage for civilians out of the area, it's unclear where exactly the hundreds of thousands of people sheltering in Rafah would go.

Egypt has rejected any plan of a military operation in Rafah, warning of the "grave consequences" of a ground assault.