Israel’s raid to free hostages takes ‘horrific’ toll on central Gaza

Around 11am on Saturday, Israeli special forces were given the go-ahead to embark on one of their most complex operations of the war: a raid in Nuseirat in central Gaza to free several hostages captured by Hamas in its October 7 attack on Israel.

The raid — which freed Noa Argamani, Almog Meir Jan, Andrey Kozlov and Shlomi Ziv — was a boost for Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, which has spent the last week arguing whether to agree to a US-backed plan to end the fighting and return the 120 hostages still in captivity.

But the devastating firepower used by Israeli forces also made June 8 the deadliest day for Gazans in months, with the enclave’s health ministry saying the raid, which was accompanied by gun battles and a fierce bombardment, had killed 274 Palestinians and injured 698. One medical chief described the “horrific” scenes in his hospital after the raid.

Shortly after the order from Herzi Halevi, Israel’s military chief, special forces who had made their way into central Gaza from Israel began moving towards two buildings, about 200 metres apart, where the four hostages were being held under armed guard in family apartments, according to Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, chief spokesman for the Israeli military.

“We were working on this operation for a couple of weeks,” he said. “They were moving the hostages’ location . . . So every time we need to make sure that we have the conditions [to go in].”

Special forces teams built models of the apartments where the hostages were being held to allow them to practice for the operation. The daylight timing was chosen to catch the hostages’ captors off-guard.

The team targeting the house where Argamani was being held surprised the guards “completely”, according to Hagari. But at the second building, where the three male hostages were located, an intense gun battle erupted. One Israeli soldier died of his injuries in the raid.

As the teams left the buildings, they came under intense fire again, Hagari said, with militants armed with RPGs targeting the forces and their escape vehicles.

Hagari said overall he was aware of “under 100” Palestinian casualties, and said the Israeli military was verifying how many had been militants, accusing Hamas of using civilians as cover.

With Israeli jets and ground forces providing covering fire, the hostages were transported to two helicopters. Hagari said reports that the humanitarian pier built by the US to bring aid into Gaza had been used to launch the operation were “bullshit”.

At around 1.30pm, news of the hostages’ return was released, sparking scenes of joy in Israel. One beach in Tel Aviv erupted into cheers and applause as a lifeguard announced their release over a loudspeaker.

Israeli soldiers pictured with 2 of the 4 freed hostages
Israeli soldiers pictured with 2 of the 4 freed hostages © Ilia Yefimovich/dpa

But for Gazans in Nuseirat, the raid was one of the deadliest days in what has become the bloodiest war in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Footage from hospitals that dealt with the victims showed casualties being rushed into overcrowded wards with blood smeared on the floors. Other videos showed mangled bodies strewn across streets, dazed people caked in dust being led away from bombed-out buildings, and young men fighting to put out fires burning inside.

Iyad al-Jabry, director of the al-Aqsa Martyrs hospital in Deir al-Balah, said victims were initially taken to Awda hospital, which was closest to the fighting. But they were soon also being brought to his hospital in overwhelming numbers, with the 200-bed facility struggling to treat 700 people with injuries from explosive weapons and bullet wounds.

“[The patients] are on the floors, in the corridors and under trees,” he said.

“They came with horrific injuries, torn lower limbs or upper limbs, some with broken skulls, their brains pouring out, some shot in the abdomen, in the intestines. There are women, children, the elderly. Houses have been destroyed and families wiped out.”

Gaza’s health ministry said more people remained trapped under the rubble of buildings flattened in the assault.

Some of Netanyahu’s allies have seized on the raid to attack critics who have argued a deal with Hamas is the best way to free the remaining hostages. Around 110 of the 250 originally captured by Hamas were released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners during a brief truce last year, while only seven have been freed by the Israeli military.

But Hagari downplayed the idea the operation could be widely replicated. Many of the hostages still in Gaza are thought to be held in Hamas’s vast network of tunnels. And Hamas frequently changes their locations to make rescues more complicated.

Jan told broadcaster Channel 12 that he, Kozlov and Ziv were held in four different homes during their eight months in captivity. Hagari said Argamani had been moved “a couple of times”, and that “more than three or four” planned rescue missions had been called off.

“We know that we cannot do operations to rescue all of them because the conditions won’t allow it,” Hagari said.

“We saw already that what brought the biggest number of hostages home was a deal . . . There is no argument about that.”

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