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How the Israeli mission to save four hostages unfolded

by Lily Chang
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Israeli troops have overrun much of Gaza since their ground invasion began in late October. But they managed to save only seven living hostages in three separate military operations, with around 120 prisoners remaining in Gaza. Several proposed rescue missions did not go ahead for fear that hostages or law enforcement would die in the process, according to two Israeli defense officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive operation.

In December, Israeli special forces attempted to rescue a hostage from Hamas captivity, according to the two defense officials. Sahar Baruch, an Israeli hostage, was killed during the firefight and two Israeli officers were seriously injured.

According to one of the defense officials, Israeli intelligence first learned that Ms. Argamani was being held in an above-ground building near the Nuseirat market area. Further information received later indicated that three more hostages were in another building in the same section, the official added.

Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, an Israeli military spokesman, said Israeli officials had worked for weeks to assemble the pieces needed for the mission. Israeli soldiers trained intensively on models of the buildings where the hostages were believed to be held, he added.

“This was a mission in the heart of a civilian neighborhood, where Hamas had intentionally hidden among houses where there were civilians and armed militants guarding the hostages,” Admiral Hagari said. “And we must act to bring those hostages home alive.”

Over the past three weeks, there were several occasions when it seemed possible to carry out the operation, but all attempts were canceled, before Israeli forces began launching the mission, the two Israeli defense officials said.

On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defense minister, met again with senior defense officials to discuss the risks of the operation and possible scenarios, said a third Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The country’s leaders gave the green light to the rescue mission that night, the official said. But there was still a chance it could be canceled at the last minute, Admiral Hagari said.

On Saturday morning, Herzi Halevi, army chief of staff, and Ronen Bar, director of the Israeli Shin Bet intelligence service, both gave the final green light a few minutes before the start of the operation, around 11 am, to Admiral Hagari.

He added that they chose to move in daylight, targeting the two buildings in Nuseirat, in an attempt to catch Hamas off guard as the armed group might expect such an operation to take place at night.

The raid began simultaneously in both buildings, where the hostages were in locked rooms surrounded by armed guards, Admiral Hagari said. In one building – where Ms Argamani was being held – officers managed to catch her Hamas captors by surprise, he said. In the other, Israeli forces engaged in a difficult firefight before reaching the remaining three hostages, he added.

As they recovered the prisoners, the agents announced over the radio that “the diamonds are in our hands,” using an assigned code word, Admiral Hagari said.

They exited the buildings as Hamas militants fired at them and threw rocket-propelled grenades, Admiral Hagari said. Officers shielded the hostages with their bodies to try to protect them, and Israeli planes struck in and around the area, targeting the militants, he added.

Khalil Daqran, a local official at the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Hospital in Deir al Balah, told reporters that many Palestinians were killed and wounded in the attacks near the Nuseirat market, which he said was full of passers-by.

Admiral Hagari said he had been told that the army was aware of Palestinian casualties resulting from the operation and that he could not confirm how many were militants. He added that Hamas attempted to fire on Israeli forces from behind civilians.

He added that “the cynical way in which Hamas uses the population even to shoot at our forces” is “tragic”.

The hostages were taken by car to two waiting helicopters, Admiral Hagari said. One carried Ms Argamani and special forces officers. The second ferried the three remaining hostages and a wounded police commander, who later died of his wounds.

Around 1.30pm, the Israeli government announced that the four hostages were home.

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