For the first time since the beginning of the Gaza war more than four months ago, Israel has succeeded in freeing civilian hostages alive from the hands of the Palestinian Islamist Hamas in a dramatic overnight rescue operation.
Two men, aged 60 and 70, were freed during a daring operation by Israeli special forces in the border town of Rafah in the south of the Gaza Strip. Immediately after storming the building, Israel's air force began attacks in the Rafah area to enable the forces to withdraw, according to military sources.
The Hamas-controlled health authority said at least 67 people, including children and women, were killed in Israeli attacks and fighting in Rafah during the night and spoke of a "massacre."
The two men were part of the some 240 hostages that Hamas and other extremists kidnapped from Israel in their unprecedented raid on October 7, in which they killed some 1,200 people.
The Israeli military had been preparing for the rescue for some time and was waiting for the right moment, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman Daniel Hagari said on Monday.
The hostages had been held on the second floor of a building in Rafah by Hamas armed terrorists, he said. Other gunmen were in neighbouring buildings.
The security forces stood in front of the hostages to protect them and then engaged in a fierce fire fight.
They are the first civilian hostages that Israeli soldiers have been able to free since the massacres on October 7, in which terrorists from Hamas and other extremist groups killed 1,200 people in Israel and took around 240 hostage.
The two hostages were rescued as part of an operation that began with heavy IDF airstrikes in the Shaboura district in central Rafah, according to the Jerusalem Post.
In a statement earlier on Monday, the IDF said it "conducted a series of strikes on terror targets in the area of Shaboura in the southern Gaza Strip" overnight. The New York Times reported that the airstrikes were used to provide cover for the rescue operation.
The statements and tolls from both sides could not initially be independently verified.
The health authority in Gaza has put the overall death toll in the territory at more than 28,300 since the war began.
The freed hostages were taken by helicopter to the Shiba Hospital near Tel Aviv, where they were embraced by their families. Argentinian President Javier Milei wrote on X that the men were were dual Israeli-Argentinian citizens.
Israel celebrated the liberation as a rare success, with praise for the operation and proclamations that Israel would do whatever it could to free the remaining hostages coming from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Isaac Herzog and Foreign Minister Israel Katz.
"Only continued military pressure, until total victory, will achieve the release of all our hostages," Netanyahu said.
Hagari said 134 people are still being held hostage in Gaza, though Israel sources said about 30 are no longer alive.
The rescue operation took place as Israel is preparing for a ground offensive in Rafah, which borders Egypt and coming under increasing pressure not to do so.
On Monday following the Rafah operation, Turkey accused Israel of deliberately expelling Palestinians,
"We consider this operation to be part of a plan to expel the people of Gaza from their own land," the Foreign Ministry in Ankara announced. The attacks are aggravating the humanitarian situation and undermining efforts to achieve a lasting ceasefire in the region.
A top UN official in Gaza said he has "no idea" where to evacuate civilians from the city of Rafah after a call from the Israeli government for assistance.
UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) director Philippe Lazzarini said every time people were instructed to move, this area in Gaza was later attacked.
"People have been just moved from one place to the other," Lazzarini said.
"Each time they were told to go to a given place, saying: 'this will be a safer place,' It has been proven that the place was not safe.
"So to go where? I don't know," he said.
Also on Monday the human rights organization Amnesty International accused the IDF of unlawfully attacking houses in Rafah in December and January and killing a number of innocent people in the process. At least 95 civilians were killed in four bombings then, the group said.
The organization found no evidence that the buildings or the people inside them were legitimate military targets. All four attacks were "probably direct attacks" on civilians and civilian objects. They must be investigated as war crimes, the group demanded. According to Amnesty's findings, Israel's army is said to have failed to warn the residents of the attacks effectively or at all.
Israel's army repeatedly emphasizes that its attacks are always aimed at military targets and that Hamas is abusing civilians by using them as human shields.
Israel's government called on UN organizations working in the region to help evacuate civilians from Rafah. Egypt has consistently said it would not take Gaza residents and was beefing up its borders with Gaza on Monday.
The IDF is drawing up evacuation plans for civilians in the overcrowded city that now houses 1.3 million. Before the war there were around 300,000 there.
Hamas terrorists want to use the Palestinian civilians in Rafah as "human shields", said government spokesman Eilon Levi, urging the UN to help.
"Don't say it can't be done. Work with us and find out!"