Israel rejoices after successful mission to rescue four hostages in Gaza

IDF commander Arnon Zamora was killed in the rescue effort, which was named ‘Operation Arnon’ in his memory

Joy and tragedy overlapped in Israel this weekend as special forces carried out a daring military operation on Saturday rescuing four Israeli hostages who have been held in Gaza by the militant Islamic terror group Hamas since its barbaric attack on southern Israel eight months ago.

As the news broke of the rescue of the four Israelis taken captive by Hamas from the Nova Music Festival on Oct. 7 – ordinary Israelis took to the streets – and beaches – in celebration.

Joyous images and videos were soon released of the four — Noa Argamani, 26, Almog Meir Jan, 22, Andrey Kozlov, 27, and Shlomi Ziv, 41 — touching down at Tel Aviv’s Sheba Tel-HaShomer Medical Center in military helicopters and being tearfully reunited with family members and friends. Even though it was Shabbat, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu relished in the rescue operation’s success, calling Argamani via telephone, and later releasing footage of him visiting all four freed hostages in the hospital.

The joy was quickly mixed with sadness, however, as the families of those who remain in Gaza released a statement urging the government to “remember its commitment to bring back all 120 hostages still held by Hamas.”

At rallies around the country on Saturday night, thousands took to the streets expressing joy that the four were rescued but demanding that the government work to reach a deal with Hamas, who in a statement hours after the rescue operation said that the remaining hostages were now in “great danger” and Israel’s actions, which it said killed more than 200 people, would “have a negative impact on their conditions and lives.”

Additionally, it was later revealed that Meir Jan’s father died of a heart attack just hours before the army arrived to deliver the news of his son’s rescue.

The daring mission, which took place “Fauda”-style in broad daylight in the center of one of Gaza’s most densely packed neighborhoods – the Nuseirat refugee camp – also took the life of Arnon Zamora, 36, a chief inspector in the Israel police’s special Yamam forces, who led part of the mission.

Zamora, a father of two young children, died from wounds sustained in a gun battle as he and his team extracted the hostages from the Hamas stronghold. He was buried in Jerusalem on Sunday and the government announced that it was naming the special mission “Operation Arnon” in his memory. 

The army said in a statement that Zamora, who grew up in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion, had also led a crucial battle at the Yad Mordechai junction on Oct. 7, killing dozens of terrorists and preventing them from infiltrating deeper into Israel. He was also involved in battles on Kibbutz Nahal Oz and Kibbutz Be’eri on that day.

In a statement about Saturday’s rescue mission, the army said it had been working together with the Yamam and the Shin Bet for several weeks planning and training for the high-risk operation, which received a green light from Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Thursday. Both political leaders watched the events from a special operations center, together with the IDF’s General Chief of Staff Herzi Halevy and Shabak head Ronen Bar.

The hostages, according to the army, were held in two separate apartment buildings roughly 200 meters apart. The operations to rescue Argamani, who was in one location, and the three men, who were in another, took place simultaneously, so as not to compromise either effort.

The IDF said on Sunday that Kozlov, Meir Jan and Ziv were held in the home of Abdallah Aljamal, a Palestinian journalist and member of Hamas. Aljamal, his father and wife were killed during the IDF’s rescue operation.

In a briefing with journalists, IDF Spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said that the army was aware of Palestinian casualties during the rescue mission but said it was unclear how many of those killed were the terrorists who had been guarding the hostages. Military analysts have theorized that large numbers of Hamas militants have made their way from Rafah, where the IDF has been fighting in recent weeks, to the area of Nuseirat, where the rescue took place, and the nearby Deir al-Balah camp, which have been largely untouched by the war.

According to reports, the Shin Bet pushed for the operation, which included rescue units arriving in unmarked trucks, to take place Saturday morning because it would surprise the Hamas terrorists holding the hostages.

A report in The New York Times on Saturday revealed that the U.S. also assisted the Israelis in planning the operation, providing intelligence on the hostage’s whereabouts and logistical support, drawing criticism from pro-Palestinian groups.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday that the U.S. “has been providing support to Israel for several months in its efforts to help identify the locations of hostages in Gaza and to support efforts to try to secure their rescue or recovery,” but said he would not “get into the specific operational or intelligence-related matters associated with that because we need to protect those.”

In the absence of a negotiated cease-fire and hostage release, Sullivan continued, “unfortunately, we are going to continue to see ongoing conflict and military operations in which Israel makes efforts to recover its citizens and, frankly, to recover American citizens. What we would much prefer to see is a ceasefire where the hostages come out peacefully.”

On Sunday, the U.S. Central Command, which constructed a temporary floating pier off the Gaza coast to help with aid efforts, released a statement saying it had resumed operations and that none of its personnel had set foot on the shore.

President Joe Biden, who was in France over the weekend commemorating the 80th D-Day invasion, welcomed “the safe rescue of four hostages that were returned to their families in Israel” and said that he would not stop working “until all the hostages come home and a ceasefire is reached.”

Avi Kalo, former head of the MIA (Missing in Action) Department for the IDF’s Intelligence unit, said in a briefing with journalists on Sunday that while the rescue operation was a “perfect expression of Israel’s intelligence and operational superiority over its enemies, particularly over terrorist organizations such as Hamas, it does not significantly improve the strategic situation regarding the war, and certainly with regard to the other hostages.”

He pointed out that after eight months of war, only seven of some 240 hostages taken on Oct. 7 had been saved through rescue efforts. In October, female soldier Ori Megidish was rescued in a special mission and Fernando Marman, 61, and Louis Har, 70, were rescued in February. In November, a cease-fire deal saw 105 hostages released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners and a temporary cessation in fighting.

Even though Saturday’s operation offered a ray of hope in the darkness of war – many, including Netanyahu, compared it to the historic 1976 operation to rescue of Israeli hostages held captive in the Ugandan city of Entebbe – Kalo said such action could not “be the platform to return all the hostages … whose time in the tunnels is running out.”

“It is reasonable to assume that Hamas is now tightening its guard over the hostages and will try to draw lessons from the operation [on Saturday] and the loopholes discovered in its defensive posture of preserving and keeping the hostages,” he said. “It is unrealistic to expect that all other 120 hostages still held by Hamas – about half of them are not alive – can be released using similar methods.”

“Yet the operation is very strong signal to our enemies that the IDF can hit anywhere with precise objectives and fulfillment of very complicated military missions in urban areas,” Kalo said, adding, “I believe that this operation is enhancing Israel’s deterrence capabilities in front of enemies in the region, which was weakened due to the seventh October massacre.”

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