Israel launched a special forces operation that freed two Israeli hostages in Rafah early Monday amid airstrikes that killed 37 people and wounded dozens in the southern Gaza city, local health officials said. He said the airstrike was carried out to allow the withdrawal of forces. The airstrikes caused widespread panic in Rafah as many people were sleeping when the attacks began, residents contacted by Reuters using a chat app said. Some feared that Israel had launched its own ground offensive in Rafah.
According to residents, Israeli aircraft, tanks and ships participated in the attacks, which hit two mosques and several houses. The Israeli military said on Monday it had launched “a series of attacks” on southern Gaza that have now ended, without giving further details. Before previous attacks on Gaza cities, Israel’s military had ordered civilians to leave without formulating any specific evacuation plan. US President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday that Israel should not launch a military operation in Rafah without a credible plan to ensure the safety of the nearly 1 million people taking refuge there, the White House said.
Aid agencies say an attack on Rafah would be devastating. It is the last relatively safe place in the area devastated by Israel’s military offensive. Biden and Netanyahu spoke for about 45 minutes, days after the US leader said Israel’s military response in the Gaza Strip was “over the top” and expressed grave concern over the rising number of civilian deaths in the Palestinian territory. Netanyahu’s office said he had ordered the army to evacuate Rafah and develop a plan to destroy four Hamas battalions stationed there. Hamas militants killed 1,200 people and abducted at least 250 in southern Israel in their offensive on October 7, according to Israeli data. Israel has responded with a military offensive on the Gaza Strip that has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.