Israel strikes ‘severely overcrowded’ Rafah, says it freed 2 hostages


Dozens of people were killed early Monday after Israel launched a series of strikes on Rafah, according to Gaza health officials. Israel also announced it rescued two hostages during a special raid into the southern Gaza city, where 1.4 million Palestinians have sought refuge during the four-month Israel-Hamas war.

Israel has been signalling its ground offensive in Gaza may soon target the densely populated city on the Egyptian border. On Sunday, the White House said President Joe Biden had warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel should not conduct a military operation against Hamas in Rafah without a “credible and executable” plan to protect civilians.

The strikes hit around Kuwait Hospital early Monday morning, an Associated Press journalist in Rafah said. Some of those wounded in the strikes had been brought to the hospital.

The Israeli military said it struck “terror targets in the area of Shaboura,” which is a district in Rafah. The military statement said the series of strikes had concluded, without elaborating on the targets or assessing the potential damage or casualties.

Gaza health officials told Reuters at least 37 people were killed in the strikes.

People covered in dust and blood enter a hospital.
Palestinians injured by Israeli strikes arrive at Kuwait Hospital in Rafah on Monday. (Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

Shortly after the bombardment, the Israeli military announced it had freed two hostages — identified as Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70 — during a raid by special forces in Rafah, also on early on Monday. It said both men were kidnapped by Hamas militants from Kibbutz Nir Yizhak in the Oct. 7 attack that started the Israel-Hamas war. They are just the second and third hostages to be rescued safely.

The two men were rescued from a residential building in a raid that also killed at least seven people, according to Palestinian officials. Witnesses reported at least 17 airstrikes, flares and Apache helicopter fire.

Lt. Col. Richard Hecht said the operation was based on “precise intelligence,” and that the site, located on the second floor of the building, had been watched for “some time.” He said Netanyahu joined Israel’s military chief and other top officials as the raid unfolded. 

The two men were taken to Sheba hospital in central Israel, a statement from the hospital said, and were confirmed by doctors to be in “good condition.”

Soldiers stand near an operating helicopter parked on a tarmac.
This photo provided by the Israeli military shows an Israeli helicopter carrying two released hostages landing at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, Israel, on Monday. (Israel Defence Forces/The Associated Press)

U.S., Egyptian concerns over Rafah 

Biden’s remarks on Sunday were his most forceful language yet on a possible Israeli ground operation into Rafah. Biden, who last week called Israel’s military response in Gaza “over the top,” also sought “urgent and specific” steps to strengthen humanitarian aid. Israel’s Channel 13 television said the conversation lasted 45 minutes.

Discussion of the potential for a ceasefire agreement took up much of the call, a senior U.S. administration official said. After weeks of diplomacy, a “framework” is now “pretty much” in place for a deal that could see the release of remaining hostages held by Hamas in exchange for a halt to fighting.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss negotiations, acknowledged that “gaps remain,” but declined to give details. The official said military pressure on Hamas in the southern city of Khan Younis in recent weeks helped bring the group closer to accepting a deal.

Smokes rises from a city in the background as tents are seen in the foreground.
Smokes rises from the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis in the background as tents for Palestinians displaced by the Israel-Hamas war are seen in the foreground in Rafah on Sunday. (Bassam Masoud/Reuters)

Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the call. The Hamas Al-Aqsa television station earlier quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying any invasion of Rafah would “blow up” the talks mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar.

Biden and Netanyahu spoke after two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said Egypt would suspend its peace treaty with Israel if troops are sent into Rafah. Egypt fears that move could push Palestinians into the Sinai Peninsula and force the closure of Gaza’s main aid supply route.

The threat to suspend the Camp David Accords, a cornerstone of regional stability for nearly a half-century, came after Netanyahu said sending troops into Rafah was necessary to win the four-month war against Hamas. He asserted that Hamas has four battalions there.

A tank fires a round.
An Israeli tank fires a round near the country’s southern border with Gaza on Sunday. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)

Over half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million people have fled to Rafah to escape fighting in other areas, and they are packed into tent camps and UN-run shelters. Egypt fears a mass influx of Palestinian refugees who may never be allowed to return.

Netanyahu told Fox News Sunday that there’s “plenty of room north of Rafah for them to go to” after Israel’s offensive elsewhere in Gaza, and said Israel would direct evacuees with “flyers, with cellphones and with safe corridors and other things.” But the offensive has caused widespread destruction, with little capacity to take in people.

The standoff between Israel and Egypt, two close U.S. allies, took shape as aid groups warned that an offensive in Rafah would worsen the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza. Around 80 per cent of residents have fled their homes, and the UN says a quarter of the population faces starvation.

A ground operation in Rafah could cut off one of the only avenues for delivering food and medical supplies. Forty-four trucks of aid entered Gaza on Sunday, said Wael Abu Omar, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Crossings Authority. About 500 entered daily before the war.

Map of Gaza Strip cities, pre-war populations:


Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters on the sensitive negotiations. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries have also warned of severe repercussions if Israel goes into Rafah.

“An Israeli offensive on Rafah would lead to an unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe and grave tensions with Egypt,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter. Human Rights Watch said forced displacement is a war crime.

The White House, which has rushed arms to Israel and shielded it from international calls for a ceasefire, has warned that a Rafah ground operation would be a “disaster” for civilians.

Barbed wire in the foreground frames displaced people in the background gathering around a tent and a line of laundry.
Palestinians displaced by the Israel-Hamas war shelter in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Saturday. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

Israel and Egypt fought five wars before signing the Camp David Accords, brokered by the U.S. in the late 1970s. The agreement includes provisions governing the deployment of forces on both sides of the heavily fortified border.

Egyptian officials fear that if the border is breached, the military would be unable to stop a tide of people fleeing into the Sinai Peninsula.

The United Nations says Rafah, normally home to fewer than 300,000 people, now hosts 1.4 million more and is “severely overcrowded.”

This gif features aerial satellite images showing a sparsely populated town and the same town but heavily populated.
These satellite image provided by Planet Labs PBC shows the southern Gaza town of Rafah on Oct 13, 2023, left, and Jan. 14. (Planet Labs PBC/The Associated Press)

Inside Rafah, some displaced people were packing up again.

Rafat and Fedaa Abu Haloub, who fled Beit Lahia in the north earlier in the war, placed their belongings onto a truck. “We don’t know where we can safely take him,” Fedaa said of their baby. “Every month we have to move.”

Om Mohammad Al-Ghemry, displaced from Nuseirat, said she hoped Egypt would not allow Israel to force Palestinians to flee into the Sinai “because we do not want to leave.”

112 bodies taken to Gaza hospital in a day

Until now, Israel has ordered much of Gaza’s population to flee south, with evacuation orders covering two-thirds of the territory.

Heavy fighting continues in central Gaza and Khan Younis. In Gaza City, remaining residents covered decomposing bodies in the streets or carried bodies to graves.

Gaza’s health ministry said Sunday that the bodies of 112 people killed across the territory had been brought to hospitals in the past 24 hours. The death toll is 28,176 since the start of the war. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and fighters but says most of those killed were women and children.

WATCH | Gaza hunger crisis ‘unprecedented,’ says World Food Program official: 

Gaza hunger crisis ‘unprecedented’ in scale, speed, severity: WFP official

Arif Husain, chief economist for the World Food Program, told Rosemary Barton Live that ‘pretty much everybody’ living in Gaza is suffering from hunger, and about a quarter of the population is ‘literally starving.’

The war began with Hamas’s attack into southern Israel on Oct. 7, when some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed and another 250 abducted, according to Israeli tallies. More than 100 hostages were released in November during a weeklong ceasefire in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners. Some remaining hostages have died.

Hamas has said it won’t release any more hostages unless Israel ends its offensive and withdraws from Gaza. It has also demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including senior militants who are serving life sentences.

Netanyahu has ruled out both demands, saying Israel will fight on until “total victory” and the return of all hostages.



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