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DOHA/JERUSALEM: Israel freed two Israeli-Argentinian hostages in Rafah on Monday under the cover of airstrikes which local health officials said killed 67 Palestinians and wounded dozens in the southern Gaza city that is the last refuge of about a million displaced civilians.

A joint operation by the Israeli military, the domestic Shin Bet security service and the Special Police Unit in Rafah freed Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Hare, 70, the military said.

The two men were kidnapped by Hamas from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak on Oct. 7, the military said, among some 250 people who Israel says were seized during the Hamas raid that triggered its war on Gaza.

“We’ve been working a long time on this operation,” Israeli military spokesman Lt Col. Richard Hecht said. “We were waiting for the right conditions.”

The hostages were being held on the second floor of a building that was breached with explosives during the raid, which saw heavy exchanges of gunfire with surrounding buildings, Hecht said. A photograph released to media showed them in hospital, sitting on a sofa alongside relatives.

Relative of freed hostage appeals for Gaza deal

The Argentinian government thanked Israel for the rescue of the two men, who it said were dual nationals of Argentina.

Israel’s military said its air strikes had coincided with the raid to allow its forces to be extracted.

The Gaza health ministry said 67 people had been killed and the number could rise as rescue operations were under way. A photograph from the scene showed a vast area of rubble where buildings had been destroyed.

Palestinians in Rafah said two mosques and several houses were hit in more than an hour of strikes by Israeli warplanes, tanks and ships, causing widespread panic among people who had been asleep.

“It was the worst night since we arrived in Rafah last month. Death was so near as shells and missiles landed 200 meters from our tent camp,” said Gaza businessman Emad, a father of six, told Reuters using a chat app.

Some feared Israel had begun a long-feared ground offensive in the city, where more than a million people displaced by Israel’s war on Hamas are sheltering with nowhere else to go.

Hamas says Israeli push into Rafah would threaten hostage talks

“Everyone said it was a surprise ground attack. My family and I said our last prayers,” Emad said.

A relative of one of the hostages said he had seen both freed men in hospital and found them “a bit frail, a bit thin, a bit pale” but overall in good condition.

Idan Bejerano, son-in-law of Hare, said that the hostages had both been sleeping when “within a minute” the commandos were in the building and covering them as they fought the captors.

They were being treated in Israel’s Sheba hospital, its director Prof Arnon Afek said.

Hamas said the attack on Rafah was a continuation of a “genocidal war” and forced displacement attempts Israel has waged against the Palestinian people.

Hamas killed 1,200 people in southern Israel and abducted at least 250 in their Oct. 7 incursion, 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 health ministry in the enclave.

Air strike kills 15 in central Gaza

US President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday that Israel should not start 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.

Israel deploys new military AI in Gaza war

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.

Egypt has reinforced its border with the city, saying it fears Gazans will be pushed across, never to return.

An Israeli official has said people will be evacuated further north but its forces are also active in central Gaza. Palestinian medics said 15 people had been killed in an airstrike in the central town of Deir Al-Balah.

Palestinian father Emad said the world needed to act.

“The whole world condemned Israel’s plans to invade Rafah. They are destroying the city before they invade it, how is the world doing now? Only concerned?” he said.

Biden and 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 Gaza.

Israel bombs Rafah city as battlefront nears

Netanyahu’s office has said it had ordered the military to develop a plan to evacuate Rafah and destroy four Hamas battalions it says are deployed there.

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.

Aqsa Television on Sunday quoted a senior Hamas leader as saying any Israeli ground offensive in Rafah would “blow up” the hostage-exchange negotiations.

Egypt warned on Sunday of “dire consequences” of a potential Israeli military assault on Rafah.

“Egypt called for the necessity of uniting all international and regional efforts to prevent the targeting of the Palestinian city of Rafah,” its foreign ministry said in a statement.

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