Israel’s military said early Monday that it had conducted a “wave of attacks” on the Gazan city of Rafah to provide cover as soldiers freed two hostages held by Hamas. Dozens of Palestinians were killed in Rafah overnight, according to the Gazan health ministry.
The strikes, the latest in a series carried out by Israel in Rafah in recent weeks, fueled fear and panic among the more than a million Palestinians who have crowded into Gaza’s southernmost city, seeking refuge from Israeli military actions farther north. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated on Sunday that the military would soon enter Rafah, which is bracketed by a closed Egyptian border.
At 1:49 a.m. local time, Israeli special forces soldiers broke into a building where the two hostages were being held, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the military’s chief spokesman, said at a news conference. About a minute later, Israeli forces fired on nearby buildings, creating cover for the soldiers to safely bring the hostages out and take them back to Israel, he said.
The ministry of health in Gaza said that at least 67 people had been killed overnight in Rafah. News outlets reported deadly attacks on two mosques in Rafah and said people were being taken to Kuwait Hospital in the city. Neither the toll nor the Israeli account could be immediately verified.
Ziad Obeid, a customs official who had fled to Rafah, described being awakened at 2 a.m. by a barrage of explosions so bright that it was “as if we were in the middle of the day, not the night.” He added: “It was a horrible night.”
Mr. Netanyahu has ignored warnings from Israel’s most important allies, including the United States and Britain, not to proceed with the plan to send troops into Rafah, saying that Israel had no choice but to finish its assault on Hamas, which it says is hiding members among the civilians in Rafah.
The United Nations and aid groups have repeatedly warned that an advance on Rafah would be devastating to civilians and risk exacerbating a catastrophe that is already unfolding, with the residents running low on food, clean water and medicine. The people in Rafah, many of whom have already fled their homes at least once to escape Israeli attacks since the start of the war, have nowhere else to go, the United Nations and aid groups have said.
On Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu promised to offer Palestinians safe passage to northern areas of Gaza before the planned ground invasion, though he offered no details.
The warnings of a ground invasion have also prompted tensions with Israel’s neighbor, Egypt, near whose border some of the recent strikes have occurred. Egypt has warned of “dire consequences” if the operation proceeds, while ruling out opening its border to let large numbers of displaced Palestinians take temporary refuge on its territory.
A flurry of diplomatic activity in recent days aimed at reaching a cease-fire agreement has had no results so far. On Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu spurned an offer from Hamas to free hostages in exchange for Israel withdrawing from Gaza, abiding by a long-term cease-fire and freeing Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
Asked during an interview broadcast on Sunday how many of the remaining hostages were still alive, Mr. Netanyahu said, “Enough to warrant the kind of efforts that we’re doing.”