Israeli special operations forces raided a building in the southern Gazan city of Rafah early Monday and freed two hostages held by Hamas, the military said, as Israel launched a wave of attacks that killed dozens of Palestinians in the city, according to the Gazan health ministry.
The nighttime operation — only the second time Israeli forces said they had rescued captives in Gaza — prompted elation in Israel, where the fate of more than 100 people kidnapped during the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7 has become one of the country’s highest priorities.
But in Rafah, the raid fueled fear, mourning and panic among more than a million Palestinians who have crowded into the city, seeking refuge from Israeli military actions farther north. Palestinians feared that the raid presaged a full-fledged ground invasion into Rafah, and that the high death toll foretold much more mourning ahead.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has said that Israeli ground forces are preparing to enter Rafah with the goal of eliminating Hamas battalions there. The prospect of ground battles in the city, which is bracketed by a closed Egyptian border and invading Israeli forces, has created worldwide alarm over the risks to civilians who have nowhere else to flee.
The intensity of the rescue operation and the death toll made clear Mr. Netanyahu’s determination to press ahead with the southern offensive, despite criticism from the United States and other allies, and pressure to reduce civilian casualties and destruction.
At 1:49 a.m. on Monday, Israeli special forces broke into a building where the two hostages, Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, were being held, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the military’s chief spokesman, said at a news conference.
About a minute later, Israeli soldiers fired on nearby buildings in an effort to disrupt Hamas’s communications and to allow the hostages to be brought out, Admiral Hagari said, and Israeli warplanes fired on Hamas targets in the area.
Ziad Obeid, a customs official who had fled to Rafah, described being awakened at 2 a.m. by a barrage of explosions so bright that it was “as if we were in the middle of the day, not the night.”
“It was a horrible night,” he said.
The ministry of health in Gaza said that at least 67 people had been killed in the Israeli strikes.
Drone footage released by the Israeli military appeared to show roughly a dozen Israeli troops entering a building by foot from a street lined with flat-roofed houses. Other footage showed a blast at the building next-door, caused by what the Israeli military said was an Israeli strike.
Akram al-Satri, 47, who has been staying in the Shaboura neighborhood of Rafah, said that several houses and a mosque in the area were destroyed. “To put it simply: It was a night full of horror, strikes, death and destruction,” he said.
The explosions, Mr. al-Satri said, led to panic as people rushed to pack whatever belongings they had, fearing that the threatened Israeli ground invasion had begun.
In five voice messages left over the course of the night by another displaced Palestinian, Ghada al-Kurd, the sound of bombs and gunfire could be heard in the background. Her young nieces were crying, she said, and she, too, was “very scared.”
“The bombing was everywhere — we were convinced that the Israeli army was invading,” said Ms. al-Kurd, 37. But, she said, “no one knew where to even go.”
The rescued hostages were taken to a hospital in Tel Aviv, where they were undergoing tests and were in good condition, Israeli officials said. The men, who are dual citizens of Israel and Argentina, cried and embraced family members at the hospital, according to video released by the Israeli military.
Mr. Har appeared pale and “a little in shock,” his son-in-law, Idan Berjerano, told Israel’s public broadcaster after visiting him.
An Israeli news website, Ynet, reported that the men had told their captors that they were Argentine and had tried to make conversation by talking about soccer.
On Monday, they were freed after more than 120 days in captivity.
“Welcome back,” one commando can be heard saying in footage taken on a helicopter. “How are you guys? How are you feeling?”
“Shocked,” one of the hostages replies. “Shocked, all right.”
Both had been kidnapped from the same house in Nir Yitzhak, a kibbutz near the border with Gaza, along with other family members, among them Clara Marman, who is Mr. Marman’s sister and Mr. Har’s partner. Ms. Marman and the other family members were freed in November as part of a weeklong cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
Some Israelis want the government to agree to a deal that would free the remaining hostages in exchange for an end to the Israeli assault, fearing that the offensive puts the them in jeopardy. Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement on Monday that “only continued military pressure, until total victory, will bring about the release of all of our hostages.”
Mr. Netanyahu says that securing Rafah is critical to Israel’s goal of ending Hamas control in Gaza. On Sunday, he promised civilians there safe passage to areas of northern Gaza, though he offered no details.
President Biden, after meeting at the White House on Monday with King Abdullah II of Jordan, reiterated American concerns about an Israeli invasion in Rafah, saying it “should not proceed” without “a credible plan for ensuring the safety and support of more than one million people sheltering there.”
Calling civilians there “exposed and vulnerable,” Mr. Biden said, “They need to be protected.”
He said that the United States was also continuing to work on a deal between Hamas and Israel that would free the remaining hostages and pause the fighting for at least six weeks.
King Abdullah said the war must end.
“We cannot afford an Israeli attack on Rafah,” he said. “It is certain to produce another humanitarian catastrophe.”
At a news conference in Washington on Monday, Matthew Miller, a State Department spokesman, said the Biden administration had communicated its concerns about the expected invasion to Mr. Netanyahu and other Israeli officials.
But Mr. Miller declined to say what action the United States might take if Israel did not heed its advice. When asked if the Biden administration was happy with the results so far of its efforts to influence Israel’s conduct of the war, he said, “in many cases, no, absolutely we are not.”
More than 28,000 people in Gaza have been killed in Israel’s military campaign, according to the territory’s health officials. Israel says that about 1,200 people were killed in the Oct. 7 attack.
The United Nations has repeatedly warned that an advance on Rafah could be devastating to civilians and could worsen the humanitarian catastrophe already unfolding in Gaza, where people are running dangerously low on food, clean water and medicine.
On Monday, Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for the United Nations secretary-general, suggested that the U.N. would play no part in Israel’s evacuations plans. “We will not be party to forced displacement of people,” Mr. Dujarric said. “As it is, there is no place that is currently safe in Gaza.”
Reporting was contributed by Michael Levenson, Iyad Abuheweila, Abu Bakr Bashir, Yan Zhuang, Gabby Sobelman, Mike Ives, Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Farnaz Fassihi, Andrés R. Martínez and Isabel Kershner.