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Israel rescues 4 hostages in operation that kills over 270 Gazans

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Four Israeli hostages are home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

RASCOE: Cheers erupted on a beach in Israel as the lifeguard announced the news that Israeli special forces rescued the hostages from Gaza on Saturday. It was the biggest hostage rescue raid of the Israel-Hamas war and also one of the bloodiest Israeli operations of the war. NPR's producer Anas Baba was nearby and ran for cover with other Palestinians.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken, crying).

RASCOE: Gaza's Health Ministry says at least 274 people were killed and 698 wounded. NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us from Tel Aviv, and a warning that this reporting will include graphic descriptions of violence. Good morning.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So, Daniel, tell us more about the hostage rescue.

ESTRIN: It took place at 11:30 in the morning on Saturday. It was a raid by Israeli special operations forces on two residential apartment buildings in Central Gaza. One of the buildings held a 26-year-old Israeli woman, and the other building held three Israeli male hostages. They were all held in locked rooms in apartment buildings. And there was a gun battle with their Palestinian guards when the Israeli officers came to rescue them. One of the Israeli officers was killed in that gun battle. The officers then left the building with the hostages that came under heavy Palestinian fire, and they left Gaza by helicopter from the Mediterranean shore. This was an operation that they had practiced for weeks using models of the apartment buildings, and they carried out this raid in broad daylight for that element of surprise. All these details were given to reporters by the army spokesman, who acknowledged that there were high Palestinian casualties in this raid. He blamed Hamas for holding hostages among civilians.

RASCOE: Who were the hostages that were rescued?

ESTRIN: Well, they were all captured on October 7 when Hamas launched this war. They were captured from the Nova music festival. One of the most well known of them was 26-year-old Noa Argamani. She was filmed as she was being taken on a motorcycle by Hamas into Gaza. She was calling out for help. Her mother, who was born in China, is hospitalized in Israel with advanced cancer, and she had been pleading to see her daughter while she is still alive. Two other security guards who were working at the festival were captured that day and rescued yesterday. One of them was a recent immigrant from Russia, and his parents flew to Israel to see him when he was rescued. So you just see some of the diverse backgrounds of the families touched by this. One 22-year-old Israeli man who was rescued - his father actually died hours before he was rescued, and so he didn't live long enough to hear the news that his own son was freed.

RASCOE: Tell us about the hostage operation from the perspective of Palestinians in Gaza.

ESTRIN: Well, it really is a split-screen reality, because for Israel, this was a massive triumph, a moment of celebration. For Palestinians, it was a tragedy. It was a complete surprise. Our producer in Gaza, Anas Baba was in the area and took cover with residents at a United Nations school while there was this heavy fire.

ANAS BABA, BYLINE: Artillery everywhere, airstrikes everywhere. We don't know exactly what's happening here. People are only trying to get inside of the school in order to take a shelter.

ESTRIN: And then he went back to the scene of the hostage raid and interviewed some eyewitnesses in the neighborhood, who - one of them, Ahmad (ph), said that he saw it take place on a - it was a busy street in the middle of the day in the Nuseirat refugee camp. He said that he saw a truck come in that appeared to be a humanitarian aid truck. And then he said special forces that appeared to be dressed as Hamas militants came out, put a ladder on the house, one of the houses, and entered. He saw helicopters shooting. There were drones hovering between the homes, and then minutes later, the forces sped away under heavy air fire. And he said that he and many residents fled at that moment, and when they returned home, they found 10 or 15 homes damaged or destroyed and lots of bodies.

AHMAD: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He said he returned home to see bodies everywhere, and aircraft still firing on people. There was blood everywhere. He said the situation was extremely tragic.

RASCOE: Does this hostage rescue and the large number of casualties have the potential to change the course of the war?

ESTRIN: Well, it does not mean that we should expect to see many more hostage rescue raids like this one. The Israeli army's spokesman has said that the only way to bring out most of the hostages still in Gaza is by striking a deal with Hamas.

RASCOE: And what does all of this mean for embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

ESTRIN: This rescue raid did give Netanyahu an image of victory, but it does come at a fraught time for him because of divisions in his government and pressure at home about the remaining hostages and the war still going on. I don't think it changes the bigger picture for him. The war still has no clear exit, and that remains unchanged despite this dramatic hostage rescue raid.

RASCOE: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv, thank you so much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.