Israel Says It Struck Rafah as Diversion to Rescue 2 Hostages

Smoke billowing over Rafah, Gaza, during a wave of Israeli attacks early on Monday.Credit…Mohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Israel’s military said early Monday that it had conducted a “wave of attacks” on the Gazan city of Rafah that was meant to divert attention as soldiers successfully freed two hostages held by Hamas. Local news outlets reported that at least a dozen Palestinians had been killed in the airstrikes.

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 broke into a building where the two hostages were being held, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari 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.

Wafa, the news agency for the Palestinian Authority, said that at least a dozen people had been killed by the airstrikes, citing local health authorities. Images and videos on social media, which could not immediately be verified, showed injured people and damage to buildings 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.

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 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 sparked 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 man holding his daughter at a hospital in Rafah on Monday.Credit…Mohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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 Israeli 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.”