Israel’s hostage rescue: New details on how it unfolded and almost fell apart in Gaza – NBC News

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RAMAT GAN, Israel — New details emerged Monday about the rescue of four hostages — a high-risk operation that proved to be Israel’s most successful of the eight-month war, but that brought death and horror to the central Gaza refugee camp where they had been held by Hamas.
The surprise daytime raid reunited Noa Argamani, 26, Almog Meir Jan, 21; Andrey Kozlov, 27; and Shlomi Ziv, 40, with their families, sparking emotional scenes of celebration and relief in Israel. For Jan’s family, the joy was tempered by grief following the death of his father on Saturday morning.
In the Nuseirat refugee camp, Palestinian families mourned after at least 274 people, including dozens of children, were killed during the raid, according to local health officials. The Israeli military acknowledged there were casualties, but estimated the number was less than 100 and said it did not know how many were Hamas fighters. NBC News could not independently verify the death toll.
An Israeli commando was also killed, the Israel Defense Forces said.
And on Monday the IDF confirmed to NBC News that a vehicle carrying the three male hostages broke down during the rescue operation while under militant fire. Commandos were forced to hastily load the hostages into a separate vehicle under fire before driving them to a waiting helicopter, the IDF said.
The rescue may have been perilously close to going badly wrong, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enjoyed a rare moment of triumph in the wake of its success. He quickly faced global outrage over the scale of the raid’s destruction in Gaza, however, as well as division at home following the resignation of a key rival from his war Cabinet and renewed concern from the families of remaining hostages.
Witnesses told NBC News’ crew in Gaza of the bloody intensity of the surprise Israeli assault, while the IDF described how the precarious operation unfolded.
Among the hostages rescued on Saturday was Argamani, whose kidnapping during Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks was captured in video that was shared around the world. She was seized alongside her boyfriend, Avinatan Or, who is believed to remain held in Gaza.
In a news briefing following the raid, IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Israeli forces launched their operation during the daytime to give them a greater element of surprise.
The United States provided intelligence in support of the rescue operation, according to a U.S. official with knowledge of the matter.
The apartment Argamani was held in was about 200 meters (or about 220 yards) from the one where the three other hostages were kept, Hagari said.
The two apartments housed civilians in buildings with roughly three to four stories and families living in them, Hagari said, adding that both apartments also had armed guards inside.
The IDF launched raids on both apartments simultaneously, Hagari said. He did not expand on how Israeli forces made their way into the heart of Nuseirat.
Residents of the refugee camp recounted seeing vehicles enter the area that they thought were carrying goods.
Suddenly commandos sprang from a truck before entering a building and leaving “under heavy cover of fire,” shopkeeper Abdulrahman Al-Taheawi told NBC News’ crew on the ground. He said that several people were killed inside the building and that Israeli forces “took the prisoners and left.”
An officer in an elite police commando unit, Chief Inspector Arnon Zamora, was killed during the raid.
And after the initial firefight, things almost went sideways when the vehicle carrying the three male hostages broke down.
“A lot of fire was around us,” Hagari said.
The teams were able to complete the rescue aided by heavy bombardment, with witnesses describing a harrowing fight that saw bullets rain down and the sky at one point filled with aircraft.
Commandos used the code words “we have the diamonds” once they had safely escaped, Hagari said.
Arnon Afek, acting director of Sheba Hospital near Tel Aviv, said in an interview Monday that the facility was given a 30-minute warning that the rescued hostages were being brought there by helicopter.
He said the hostages were brought to the emergency room, where their conditions were assessed and where they were able to meet with their loved ones after months apart, in what he described as a “moment of joy.”
Afek said that despite appearing generally physically healthy, the hostages appeared to be suffering from both malnutrition and mental scars as a result of their time in captivity.
The IDF claimed that the three men rescued on Saturday had been held by a local journalist, Abdullah Aljamal, who they said had worked for the Qatari state-owned broadcaster Al Jazeera. The IDF did not provide evidence to support the claim.
The journalist’s byline appeared to be listed on Al Jazeera’s website in connection with a single opinion piece. Al Jazeera told NBC News in a statement that Aljamal had never worked with the network, but contributed to an op-ed in 2019, and called the IDF’s allegations “completely unfounded.”
In Gaza, Palestinians were left reeling from an operation that shattered a quiet Saturday in the refugee camp.
Manar Eliyan said she was finished preparing the dough and sauce to make pizza for her five children when “suddenly we heard heavy fire hitting our house and the neighbor’s house.” She said they hid in the kitchen for an hour amid fire from the air and ground.
Video of the aftermath showed charred bodies strewn across streets covered in rubble as residents gathered the remains of those killed in sacks.
Al-Taheawi showed the blood-stained walls of his store.
One woman, Noura Abou Khamis, told NBC News that her 8-year-old son was killed in the gunfire.
What she saw that day, Abou Khamis said, is impossible to describe. “People in pieces. People ripped in tiny pieces,” she said.
NBC News later learned that her other son, who was wounded, had died from his injuries.
Many of the dead and injured were brought to a hospital in the nearby town of Deir al-Balah, one of the only functioning medical facilities in the area.
Samuel Johann, of Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, which operates in the hospital, described that day as a “nightmare.”
“There have been back-to-back mass casualties as densely populated areas are bombed,” he said in a statement. “It’s way beyond what anyone could deal with in a functional hospital, let alone with the scarce resources we have here.”
More than 37,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to local health officials, since Israel launched its offensive in the enclave following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks, in which some 1,200 people were killed and around 250 others taken hostage, according to Israeli officials. More than 100 people are thought to remain held captive, with at least a quarter of them believed to be dead.
Raf Sanchez reported from Ramat Gan and Chantal Da Silva from London.
Raf Sanchez is a foreign correspondent for NBC News.
Chantal Da Silva reports on world news for NBC News Digital and is based in London.
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