Israel rescues four hostages taken in Oct. 7 attack

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel on Saturday carried out its largest hostage rescue operation since the latest war with Hamas began, taking four to safety out of central Gaza amid the military’s heavy air and ground assault. At least 94 dead Palestinians, including children, were brought to local hospitals, a health official said.

Israelis were jubilant as the army said it freed Noa Argamani, 25; Almog Meir Jan, 21; Andrey Kozlov, 27; and Shlomi Ziv, 40, in a daytime operation in the heart of Nuseirat, raiding two locations at once while under fire. All were well, the military said. They were taken by helicopter for medical checks and tearful reunions with loved ones after 246 days held.

Argamani had been one of the most widely recognized hostages after being taken, like the three others, from a music festival. The video of her abduction, among the first to surface, showed her seated between two men on a motorcycle as she screamed, “Don’t kill me!”

Her mother, Liora, has stage four brain cancer and in April released a video pleading to see her daughter before she dies. Her father, Yaakov, on Saturday praised the “most moral army in the world” for her return.

In a video message released by the government, an elated Argamani told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone she was “very excited,” saying she hasn’t heard Hebrew in so long.

Netanyahu in a statement vowed to continue the fighting until all hostages are freed. The operation was “daring in nature, planned brilliantly, and executed in an extraordinary fashion,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said.

Israeli aircraft hummed overhead as the bodies of nearly 100 Palestinians killed were taken to Al-Aqsa Hospital, where spokesperson Khalil Degran told The Associated Press more than 100 wounded also arrived. AP reporters saw dozens of bodies brought from the Nuseirat and Deir al-Balah areas, as smoke rose in the distance and armored vehicles rolled by.

A baby was among the dead. Small children wailed, covered in blood. Bodies were placed on the ground outside, their feet bare, as more wounded were rushed in.

“My two cousins were killed, and two other cousins were seriously injured. They did not commit any sin. They were sitting at home,” one relative said in the chaos. As Palestinians explored the newly destroyed buildings, a small child sat on a collapsed metal door, overwhelmed.

Egypt condemned “with the strongest terms” Israel’s attacks on the Nuseirat refugee camp, with its foreign ministry calling it a “flagrant violation of all rules of international law.”

Israel’s military said it had attacked “threats to our forces in the area,” adding that one commando died from his wounds.

A U.S. hostage cell provided advice and support throughout the process of locating and rescuing the hostages, according to a Biden administration official. The official, who was not authorized to comment and requested anonymity, declined to offer further detail on the American involvement. The hostage cells are multi-agency teams.

“We won’t stop working until all the hostages come home and a cease-fire is reached,” U.S. President Joe Biden said.

Hamas took some 250 hostages during the Oct. 7 attack that killed about 1,200 people. About half were released in a weeklong cease-fire in November. About 120 hostages remain, with 43 pronounced dead.

Survivors include about 15 women, two children under 5 and two men in their 80s.

Saturday’s hostage recovery operation brought the total number of rescued captives to seven. Two were freed in February and one was freed in the aftermath of the October attack. Israeli troops have recovered the bodies of at least 16 hostages, according to the government.

The latest rescue was expected to lift spirits in Israel as the war drags on and divisions deepen over the best way to bring hostages home.

It was unclear what effect it might have on apparently stalled cease-fire efforts. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will return to the Middle East next week, seeking a breakthrough.

“The hostage release and cease-fire deal that is now on the table would secure the release of all the remaining hostages together with security assurances for Israel and relief for the innocent civilians in Gaza,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement.

Many Israelis urged Netanyahu to embrace a cease-fire deal Biden announced last month, but far-right allies threaten to collapse his government if he does.

International pressure is mounting on Israel to limit civilian bloodshed in its war in Gaza, which reached its eighth month on Friday with more than 36,700 Palestinians killed, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between fighters and civilians.

Palestinians also face widespread hunger because fighting and Israeli restrictions have largely cut off the flow of aid.

Israel is intensifying operations across central Gaza, where the hostages were rescued. On Thursday, an Israeli airstrike hit a U.N.-run school compound in Nuseirat, killing over 33 people inside the school, including three women and nine children.

Israel said some 30 militants were inside and on Friday released the names of 17 it said were killed. However, only nine of those matched records from the hospital morgue. One of the alleged militants was an 8-year-old boy, according to hospital records.

Israel’s military on Saturday asserted that “Hamas is a terror organization that often uses fake documents disguising terrorists as women or children.”