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Israeli forces rescue four hostages in 'complex' operation

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Israeli forces rescued four hostages from Gaza earlier today, in an action that Israeli officials described as a complex special daytime operation. It's the first hostage rescue since February and the largest since the war began. But the operation came at a cost. At least 200 Palestinians were killed. One Israeli special forces police officer was also killed. We're going to talk about this with NPR's Kat Lonsdorf, who's been following this all from Tel Aviv. And before we do that, a warning that this report will contain some graphic details and sounds of gunfire. Hi, Kat.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: Tell us more about this hostage rescue and specifically who was rescued.

LONSDORF: Yeah. So the four hostages are three men and one woman. They range in age between 21 and 40. And all of them were kidnapped by Hamas-led militants from the Nova music festival on October 7. They're said to be in good medical health. The Israeli military says that it's been planning for this specific operation for weeks. There were multiple agencies involved in Israeli military spokesperson said the hostages had been rescued under fire, and that they were held in the, quote, "heart of a civilian neighborhood."

DETROW: Let's talk more about that civilian neighborhood. This happened in a heavily populated area, and a few hours after this rescue was announced, we started getting details about the scene on the ground in Gaza. What do we know?

LONSDORF: So this happened in Nuseirat. It's a city in central Gaza, which has been in the thick of a new operation that Israel launched in the area this week. There's a large population of displaced people there. It's where a lot of people fled from Rafah in the south in the last few weeks. Our producer in Gaza, Anas Baba, was actually staying there this morning and he witnessed the whole scene. And once we were able to make contact with him, he started sending us video after video and voice messages, you know, showing us what he was experiencing.

DETROW: Tell us more about what you learned from Anas.

LONSDORF: Yeah. So first I'd like to say that Anas is OK, and we're really grateful for that. But he told us that the morning was pretty calm when suddenly, helicopters appeared and there was gunfire and explosions. He managed to roll tape while he was running for cover and sheltering with Palestinian civilians, and I just want to play some of that here for you, Scott, so you can get a sense of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Screaming).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

LONSDORF: So you can hear people scrambling for cover, kids wailing. At one point, someone is just yelling, why? Why? - in Arabic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic).

LONSDORF: And someone else says, we're all going to die. In another clip that he sent us, people are praying.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Arabic).

LONSDORF: ...Calling out to God to save them. And one man says, may God punish Hamas, who is the reason for all of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking Arabic).

LONSDORF: Eventually, the fighting quieted down, and Anas emerged and he found the streets were just covered with blood. He sent us video of that so we could see it. And then he went to Al-Aqsa hospital, which was overwhelmed with casualties. Again, in videos he sent, we could see bodies just lining the hallways.

DETROW: Who else was he able to talk to?

LONSDORF: So Anas spoke to a couple of eyewitnesses. One was a man whose house was just 50 feet or so from where the rescue happened. He's 60-year-old Mohamed Abdullahim (ph), and here's what he told us.

MOHAMED ABDULLAHIM: (Speaking Arabic).

LONSDORF: He said that after the Israeli troops left the scene, the Israeli military started to shell the entire area, bombing the house they raided, but also all around, hitting civilian cars and shops. He said, quote, "they destroyed the place totally."

DETROW: And that was after they left, he said.

LONSDORF: Yes, exactly. Now, the Israeli military says that Hamas used civilians as human shields here, and there wasn't a way to rescue the hostages without hurting civilians because Hamas embedded the hostages in a civilian area. A military spokesman said the hostages were held inside locked rooms and apartments, with families inside and security guards holding weapons outside.

DETROW: Look, this comes at a time when there is so much pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government to get these hostages back to Israel, from the hostages' families, from people throughout the country. There's often a lot of criticism saying not enough is being done. What has the families' reaction been to this?

LONSDORF: The Hostage Family Forum, the group that represents hostage families, put out a statement immediately after calling the operation today heroic, but also calling on the Israeli government to continue their commitment to getting all 120 hostages still in Hamas captivity in Gaza out, you know, dead or alive. I'll also say the families of these four hostages, the ones who were rescued this morning, are relieved and really grateful. And just generally, you know, people in Israel were cheering in the streets today. It's a big boost to public morale, especially after last week when the Israeli military pronounced four other hostages dead.

DETROW: There's been so much focus on political pressure on Netanyahu. That was possibly going to come to a head today. Any sense what this could mean for him going forward?

LONSDORF: Well, there has been this growing pressure here from the Israeli public and others to get the hostages home. You know, a lot of Israelis feel that the main focus should be pausing the war and securing another hostage deal. It's a main part of that three-part plan that President Biden put forth last week, which Netanyahu has yet to agree to. But this is already having some political effect. Like you mentioned, Benny Gantz, who is a member of Netanyahu's three-person war cabinet, also, his biggest rival, was expected to resign today. But after this news about the hostages came out, Gantz postponed any announcement so this could take some of the pressure off Netanyahu, at least for the time being. But I think it's still a little too early to tell.

DETROW: That's NPR's Kat Lonsdorf in Tel Aviv. Thanks so much.

LONSDORF: Thanks, Scott.

DETROW: And, of course, thank you also to our producer on the ground in Gaza, helping us report this story and so many others throughout this war, Anas Baba. 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.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.