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Israel Launches More Strikes on Rafah and Frees Two Hostages

(Bloomberg) -- Israel launched more airstrikes on Rafah early Monday morning and freed two hostages, as international condemnation grows over a potential ground attack on the southern Gaza city, where more than one million people have sought refuge from the war against Hamas.

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The hostages were freed overnight during a special-forces mission in Rafah. The men, both Israeli, have been transferred to Israel and are in good medical condition, the military said.

Israel launched “a series of strikes” on the Shaboura district of Rafah, the military said. Dozens of people have died so far, Palestinian media reported, citing health officials in Gaza.

The strikes came after US President Joe Biden urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to do more to shield civilians. Israel, Biden said, shouldn’t push into Rafah without a “credible and executable plan” for their safety and support.

Netanyahu spoke to Biden on Sunday and said Israel was working on a plan to move civilians out the area.

“Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying: ‘Lose the war, keep Hamas there,’” Netanyahu told American news channel ABC. “We are not going to let Hamas emerge victorious.”

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The US as well as European and Arab states have strongly criticized Israel for preparing to move ground forces into the city, which sits near Gaza’s border with Egypt.

Around half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people fled to or near Rafah at the start of the war, when Israeli forces concentrated on northern areas including Gaza City. More recently, the army has mainly focused on Khan Younis, a city to the north of Rafah.

Last week, Biden said Israel’s offensive on Gaza had been “over the top” and that there were “a lot of innocent people who are starving.”

“It’s got to stop,” he said.

An attack on Rafah “would lead to an unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe and grave tensions with Egypt,” Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top foreign-policy official, said on Sunday. “Resuming negotiations to free hostages and suspend hostilities is the only way to avert a bloodshed.”

One Egyptian parliamentarian, Mostafa Bakry, widely seen as close to President Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi, said Cairo had threatened to take the extraordinary step of suspending its 45-year-old peace treaty with Israel if it sends troops into Rafah.

Egypt is one of the few Arab states that formally recognizes Israel.

Netanyahu has insisted the war must continue until Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the US and EU, is destroyed.

The Israel-Hamas conflict began on Oct. 7 when militants from the Iran-backed group broke out of Gaza and swarmed southern Israeli communities, killing 1,200 people. Almost 28,000 people have been killed by Israel’s retaliatory air and ground attack on Gaza, according to health officials in the Hamas-run Palestinian territory.

Israel says it has killed 12,000 Hamas fighters.

Hamas abducted around 250 people during its incursion. Roughly 100 were freed during a week-long truce that ended on Dec. 1. The Israeli military has said that of the roughly 135 captives still in Gaza, 31 are dead.

The two hostages were rescued at around 2 a.m. local time, according the military’s chief spokesman, Daniel Hagari. They were named as Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70.

“The special forces breached a building in the heart of Rafah,” Hagari said on Monday. “On the second floor, Louis and Fernando were held by armed Hamas terrorists.”

Netanyahu held a meeting of his war cabinet on Sunday night to discuss Arab-led talks in Cairo on a possible exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, and a pause in fighting.

Israel rejected Hamas’ most recent offer — which included a condition that Israeli forces pull out of Gaza within about 90 days — as unacceptable. It’s unclear if Netanyahu is sending representatives to the Cairo talks, scheduled to be held later on Monday.

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The war in Gaza has roiled the wider Middle East. Yemen’s Houthis, also backed by Iran, have attacked commercial and military ships around the Red Sea, causing freight prices to soar and nervousness among oil traders. Despite the US and UK launching strikes on their positions, the Houthis say they’ll continue until Israel pulls out of Gaza.

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US bases in Syria, Iraq and Jordan have also been assaulted by Iran-supported militants, forcing Washington to respond with strikes of its own on Iraqi and Syrian territory. One drone attack last month in Jordan killed three US soldiers, prompting accusations from Republicans that Biden is too soft on Iran.

Iran backs anti-Israel and anti-US groups across the region. Together, they are often called the “axis of resistance.” They include Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as Hamas, the Houthis and militias in Syria and Iraq.

--With assistance from Michael Gunn.

(Updates with Israeli comments on moving people out of Rafah)

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