In the rescue of the Israeli hostages, minutes made the difference

When the four Israelis woke up in Gaza on Saturday, they had been held hostage by Hamas for 245 days. The buildings where they were held, two low-rise concrete apartment buildings, looked a lot like other nearby residences in a civilian neighborhood full of Palestinian families.

Within hours, the prisoners, three men and one woman, would be reunited with their families, the result of a risky and long-planned rescue operation in which the full might of the Israeli army would be used to devastating effect .

“I'm so emotional,” Israeli Noa Argamani, 26, told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone after his release. “It's been so long since I heard Hebrew.”

The rescue operation in Nuseirat involved hundreds of intelligence officers and two commando teams simultaneously raiding houses where the hostages were being held, the Israeli army said.

In one apartment, where the male hostages were imprisoned, a firefight broke out between Hamas soldiers and guards, according to military footage and video of the encounter released. Later, under a hail of gunfire, the truck in which three hostages and a wounded Israeli officer were being evacuated broke down and was surrounded by militants, Israeli officials said.

In an effort to give rescuers enough time and ample cover to return the prisoners to freedom, the military said, the air force began striking dozens of nearby targets. Many Palestinians only became aware of the fighting when they heard the bombs exploding.

Dozens of locals, including children, were killed during the rescue operation. Health authorities in Hamas-controlled territory put the number at more than 270. The Israeli military said the figure was less than 100. Neither the Israeli military nor Palestinian health officials provided a list of civilians and fighters killed in the raid.

Weeks before the raid, Israeli intelligence officials identified two buildings, about 600 feet apart, where they believed the hostages were being held.

In May, Israeli intelligence officials established that Ms. Argamani — whose capture by militants at a music festival on October 7 was captured in a widely shared video — was being held in a family's apartment near the market in Nuseirat, according to Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari. The Israeli army's chief spokesman told reporters. Nearby, in another family's apartment were the three male hostages: Almog Meir Jan, 22, Andrey Kozlov, 27, and Shlomi Ziv, 41.

According to the Israeli army, the house where the men were held belonged to Abdallah Aljamal. Aljamal's death was confirmed on Sunday by the Gaza government's press office, which said he had worked for the Hamas-affiliated Palestine Now news agency.

“We decided to conduct the operation on both apartments because if we had chosen only one, the risk of terrorists killing hostages in the other would have been too high,” Admiral Hagari said.

In preparation for the mission, the military “built models of these houses to practice,” Admiral Hagari said, adding that coordination between the two teams had to be “as precise as a brain operation” to prevent a mistake in a group led to problems for the other.

On Saturday morning, as the sun neared its blazing midday zenith, Nuseirat residents left the warmth of their apartment buildings. Outside, they went to work, shopped at the market and visited family.

“It was so normal and the streets were full of life, people selling and buying things,” said Bayan Khaled abu Amr, 32, who had left home that morning to visit her uncle.

Fifty miles away, Israeli officers crowded into the Tel Aviv command room of the Shin Bet, Israel's security agency. “The tension in the air,” Admiral Hagari said, was “very, very high.”

There, around 11 a.m., General Herzi Halevi, the army's chief of staff, uttered the word “Go,” authorizing commandos from Israel's YAMAM counterterrorism unit to begin the raid.

The unit's soldiers started two vehicles that looked like local trucks, Israeli officials said, and headed for each of the buildings where the hostages were being held.

Khalil Abdul Qader al-Tahrawi, a 60-year-old shop owner, said he was sitting outside his shop when he saw people dressed in the uniforms of the Qassam Brigades, the militant wing of Hamas, approaching the building where the three men were later found detained.

The group, he said, seemed “suspicious and strange” to him, also because “they went up the building with the stairs and came down again pointing their weapons everywhere”. He said he believed they were Israeli commandos.

Other witnesses described men who they also believed were Israeli special forces operators, but dressed in civilian clothes.

Israeli officials declined to say whether Israeli forces had worn disguises during the raid.

Moments after General Halevi authorized the operation, troops stormed both buildings simultaneously. Ms. Argamani was kept under surveillance in a locked room and her captors were quickly killed before they even realized what was happening, Israeli officials said.

“In the Noa Argamani building,” Admiral Hagari said, “our forces completely surprised them.”

As the team tasked with freeing Ms. Argamani was taking her to an extraction point by helicopter along Gaza's Mediterranean coast, the team working to rescue the three men in the other building began to catch fire, he said Admiral Hagari.

That's when Arnon Zmora, 36, an officer of the YAMAM unit, was hit and wounded, according to Admiral Hagari. Body-cam footage released by the Israeli Border Police shows Israeli troops finding the male hostages inside an apartment building, even as they continued to fire at the militants off-screen.

In the footage, edited to blur the soldiers' faces and remove gory images, the hostages are then seen leaving the building and climbing through tree-lined terrain as gunfire erupts around them.

“Hamas members shot at them,” said al-Tahrawi, the shop owner.

Other militants joined the fight, according to Admiral Hagari, “running through the streets with RPGs,” an acronym for rocket-propelled grenades. “There was a lot of fire around us,” he said.

As Ms. Argamani was approaching the beach in one vehicle, the other truck used for the rescue broke down, according to Israeli officials, who requested anonymity to discuss a clandestine operation. To provide cover for the stalled truck, officials said, the Air Force began bombing the nearby area, effectively creating a fire shield.

“Suddenly, I heard a loud bomb and the sound of some missiles around the mosque,” ​​said Ms. Abu Amr, the woman who had been visiting her uncle. “I don't remember the exact time, but maybe 11:20”

“Again, a big, loud missile was heard and gray smoke was rising,” Ms. Abu Amr added. “People started screaming.” In the chaos of the bombing, she said, “the children were screaming; the women fell while running.”

Israeli ground forces stationed nearby made their way to the broken-down truck and transferred the hostages and Chief Inspector Zmora, the injured officer, to another vehicle, Israeli officials said.

From there they headed towards the beach, where the second of the two helicopters was waiting for them. The first had already taken off with Mrs. Argamani on board.

Footage released by the military showed soldiers carrying hostages along the beach while a helicopter kicked up clouds of sand.

“We called the hostages diamonds, so let's say we have diamonds in our hands,” Admiral Hagari said.

Chief Inspector Zmora was evacuated to an Israeli hospital, where he later died from his wounds.

The corridors and lobbies of the last major medical center in central Gaza, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Hospital in Deir al-Balah, remained “densely crowded” with new patients on Sunday, after they were brought there on Saturday more than 100 bodies, said hospital official Khalil Daqran. Most of the bodies were buried or claimed by relatives, he added.

The medical facility – already packed before the Israeli rescue mission in nearby Nuseirat – was overflowing, said Dr Abdelkarim al-Harazin, 28, a doctor who works there.

Gaza's Health Ministry said at least 700 people were injured.

Aaron Boxerman AND Adam Rasgon contributed to the reporting.

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