Israel Rescues 4 Hostages in Assault That Killed Scores of Gazans

Israeli soldiers and special operations police rescued four hostages from Gaza on Saturday amid a heavy air and ground assault and flew them back to Israel by helicopter to be reunited with their families. The news was met with jubilation in Israel, where anxieties over the fate of the roughly 120 remaining captives have been rising after eight months of war.

Residents in the town of Nuseirat, where the hostages were being held, reported intense bombardments during the rescue operation. Khalil al-Daqran, an official at a hospital in the city, told reporters that scores of Palestinians had been killed and that the hospital’s wards and corridors were packed with the wounded.

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military spokesman, told reporters the rescue mission took place around 11 a.m. Saturday, when forces located the four hostages in two separate buildings where they were being held by Hamas militants. He said the Israeli forces came under fire but managed to extract the hostages in two helicopters. One special forces police officer died.

The freed hostages — Noa Argamani, 26, Almog Meir Jan, 22, Andrey Kozlov, 27, and Shlomi Ziv, 41 — were kidnapped by Palestinian militants from the Nova music festival during the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7, when about 1,200 people were killed in Israel and 250 taken hostage, Israel says. All four were in good medical condition and were transferred to a hospital in Israel for further examinations, the Israeli authorities said in a statement.

The fate of the hostages has been a source of intense political pressure on the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, amid the broader criticism that his government, for its own reasons, is in no hurry to wind down the conflict or to address the issue of who should govern Gaza after the war.

Given the hostage rescue, Benny Gantz, a member of Mr. Netanyahu’s war cabinet who has threatened to depart over Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal to talk about a postwar plan for Gaza, indefinitely postponed a news conference scheduled for Saturday evening, citing “recent events.”

Mr. Hagari, the Israeli military spokesman, said the Israeli Air
Force struck Nuseirat during the rescue in order to enable Israeli forces to extract the hostages safely.

“This was a mission in the heart of a civilian neighborhood, where Hamas had intentionally hidden among homes where there were civilians, and armed militants guarding the hostages,” Mr. Hagari said.

Videos showed people running for cover as bombs rained down. After the airstrikes, the streets were so clogged with rubble that ambulances and emergency services in central Gaza were unable to respond to many of the calls to transport the wounded to hospitals, the Gazan Health Ministry said.

Video from inside Al Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, near Nuseirat, shared by the ministry showed chaotic scenes as medical staff struggled to treat bloodied victims lying side by side on the floor. Two men held up IV bags while next to them a wounded person, whose face was bandaged, writhed under a blanket.

Reports of the numbers killed and wounded varied wildly in the confusion after the attack. Two Gaza health officials said that more than 200 people were killed in the strikes in Nuseirat, including women and children. They did not say how many of those killed were militants.

Mr. Hagari said the number killed should be “less than 100,” based on information he had seen. It was not possible to verify either number.

In a post on Telegram, Abu Obeida, the spokesman of Hamas’s military wing, said Israel killed some hostages during its rescue mission on Saturday. His claims could not be independently verified. He also suggested that Hamas would take punitive measures against the hostages remaining in Gaza.

News of the hostage rescue was met with joy and relief across Israel.

The main Israeli television stations switched to live coverage of the rescue and its aftermath, breaking the customary quiet and prerecorded programming typical of the Sabbath.

Spontaneous celebrations broke out across the country, and Israeli television broadcast images of the gatherings. In Tel Aviv, a lifeguard at the beach announced the news of the rescue to a cheering crowd of sunbathers from the lifeguard tower, according to social media posts.

The abduction of Ms. Argamani, in particular, became a symbol of the brutality of the Hamas attack on Oct. 7. In a video from the scene that day, Palestinian assailants can be seen driving Ms. Argamani away on a motorcycle as she cries for help and reaches out to her boyfriend, Avinatan Or. His fate remains unknown.

After her rescue, Ms. Argamani spoke with Mr. Netanyahu. “I’m so emotional, it’s been so long since I heard Hebrew,” she said in a recording of the call released by the prime minister’s office.

In a recorded video statement, Yaakov Argamani, Ms. Argamani’s father, thanked everyone who was involved in securing his daughter’s freedom, including Mr. Netanyahu.

“But we cannot forget — there are still 120 hostages who must be released,” Mr. Argamani said, calling on Israelis to join a weekly rally in solidarity with the remaining hostages in Gaza. “We must make every effort, in every way possible, to bring them here to Israel, to their families.”

President Biden said Saturday in Paris that he welcomed “the safe rescue of four hostages that were returned to their families in Israel,” adding, “We won’t stop working until all the hostages come home and a cease-fire is reached, and it’s essential to happen.” Mr. Biden spoke after meeting with President Emmanuel Macron of France.

Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defense minister, hailed what he called a “complex operation” by Israeli soldiers, special forces and intelligence, who he said had “operated with extraordinary courage under heavy fire.”

Israeli intelligence officers, Mr. Hagari said, worked for weeks in an attempt to assemble the pieces required for the operation to fall into place. Herzi Halevi, the military chief of staff, as well as the head of Israel’s domestic intelligence service, both gave the final go-ahead on Saturday morning.

The Israeli police special forces unit, the Yamam, was also involved, and one of its members, Chief Inspector Arnon Zamora, was seriously wounded in combat and later died of his injuries, an Israeli police spokesman said.

There was an American role as well. A team of U.S. hostage recovery officials stationed in Israel assisted in the Israeli military’s effort by providing intelligence and other support, an American official said, speaking without attribution to discuss continuing operations.

The last successful raid to free hostages was in February, when Israeli special operations forces raided a building in the southern Gazan city of Rafah and freed two captives held by Hamas.

The first hostage to have been rescued alive by Israeli security forces was Pvt. Ori Megidish, a soldier. Her rescue took place in late October, three weeks after the Hamas-led attack and days after Israel began its full-scale ground invasion of northern Gaza. Private Megidish, then 19, was abducted from the Nahal Oz military base, along Israel’s border with Gaza, where she served as a field observer.

While the freeing of the hostages was cause for celebration on Saturday, it would seem an unlikely scenario for recovering all of the 120 or so who remain captive. That would appear to require a political settlement, which is what Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken will be seeking to put together when he travels to the Mideast in the coming days.

The secretary is expected to push for a plan calling for a temporary cease-fire that would build to a permanent truce, a release of hostages and an eventual withdrawal of Israel from Gaza.

The trip will include stops in Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Qatar and will be Mr. Blinken’s eighth trip to the region since the conflict began. In a statement on Friday, the State Department said Mr. Blinken would urge an agreement on the cease-fire proposal to “alleviate suffering in Gaza, enable a massive surge in humanitarian assistance and allow Palestinians to return to their neighborhoods.”

Isabel Kershner and Adam Rasgon contributed reporting from Jerusalem, Yara Bayoumy from London and Michael D. Shear from Paris.

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