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Inside Israel’s deadly operation to rescue four hostages | CNN

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Two days after an Israeli military operation rescued four hostages being held by Hamas in Nuseirat refugee camp, central Gaza, killing more than 270 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials, new details are emerging about what was one of the most dramatic and deadly events since the war started.

The daytime rescue operation, which took weeks of planning, caught militants holding hostages in two different buildings in a densely packed civilian area off guard. It appeared to have been carried out by Israeli forces using non-military vehicles, including a white Mercedes van, according to eyewitnesses, whose accounts tallied with videos analyzed by CNN. Eyewitnesses also said that they saw Israeli forces in disguise – dressed as Hamas fighters or civilians.

“They were dressed in military uniforms like resistance fighters, carrying helmets and wearing signs of the [Hamas] resistance, giving the impression to people that they were resistance fighters, but in reality, they were an Israeli special forces unit,” Khalil Al Tirawi, a local resident, told CNN.

The Israeli military denied using civilian vehicles, but declined to say whether the officers conducting the rescue were disguised as militants or dressed as Palestinian civilians. The Israeli military had previously used civilian clothing as a tactic in its operations.

From social media

This Mercedes van, seen in an image taken from social media, was parked on a street in Nuseirat, Gaza, where the operation unfolded. Two ladders can be seen leaning up against a multistory building next to the van to reach an upper floor.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said the units on the ground were given the “go” at 11 a.m. local time and, by 11:25 a.m., began the raids simultaneously on both buildings where militants were holding the hostages — Noa Argamani, Almog Meir Jan, Andrey Kozlov and Shlomi Ziv, all of whom were taken on October 7 from the Nova music festival in Hamas’ deadly cross-border terror attack.

The Israeli soldiers managed to reach the apartment where guards were holding Argamani — pictured in a viral video being driven to Gaza on the back of a motorbike – undetected. “In Noa Argamani’s building, we surprised them completely,” Adm. Daniel Hagari, an IDF spokesman, said.

But soon after the mission got underway, Israeli soldiers and militants began to exchange fire, according to eyewitness accounts and statements from the Israeli military. Eyewitnesses said that heavy bombardment followed, with missiles and rockets raining down on the densely packed camp, home to thousands of displaced families.

A 45-second edited helmet camera video released Monday by the Israeli police and the Israeli Security Agency showed the moment the three male hostages were rescued. Heavy gunfire could be heard throughout the video, intensifying after the hostages left the building, and two soldiers were seen wearing uniforms.

By the time that the hostages, referred to by the code name “diamonds,” were brought to the Mediterranean coast and successfully evacuated in two helicopters, the operation had left a deadly trail of destruction in its wake.

The latest figures from Gazan authorities say 274 Palestinians were killed and 698 injured – which would mark one of the deadliest days in months for people living in Gaza. The IDF has disputed those numbers, saying it estimated the number of casualties from the operation was “under 100.” CNN cannot independently verify either side’s figures. Gaza’s health ministry does not distinguish between civilians and militants.

The IDF said that two teams from an Israeli police counter-terrorism special forces unit were sent into the two apartment buildings in the camp to retrieve the hostages simultaneously out of concern that if Hamas realized there was a rescue operation ongoing in one building, they might kill the hostages in the other.

As Argamani was extracted by Israeli forces, in the other apartment 200 meters away, where the three male hostages were being held, a gunfight broke out, according to the IDF. The IDF said a counter-terrorism special forces squad commander the Yamam (National Police Counter-Terrorism Unit), Arnon Zamora, was fatally wounded in that gunfight.

Al Tirawi and another man, both of whom are living across from where part of the rescue operation took place, in the center of Nuseirat refugee camp, said that they saw Israeli soldiers arrive in civilian cars in disguise.

Abdullah Jouda, who was displaced from Jabalia to Nuseirat camp during the war, told CNN that he heard noises on the street around 11:30 a.m. and went to see what was happening. When he opened the door, he said he saw men, who he believes were Israeli forces, leaving a Mercedes van dressed in all black and wearing the emblem for Hamas’ military wing Al Qassam Brigades.

“I saw special forces, as soon as they left the vehicle, they had ladders on the balcony and [were] climbing them … I only saw them for approximately two seconds because if I looked at them longer, I could have been killed,” Jouda said. “There was heavy gunfire … almost everything was being fired on. Warplanes were firing, drones were firing, sound grenades. It was terrifying, we felt like it was the apocalypse.”

CNN could not independently verify his claims, but a video showed a white Mercedes van, with mattresses, plastic bags and other objects strapped to its roof – a frequent sight in the camp, where many people have sought shelter from the war, their belongings in tow – was parked on a street where the operation unfolded.

Two ladders could be seen leaning up against a multistorey building next to the van, reaching up to a higher floor. A body appears to be visible on the ground in front of the truck. “There they are. They are still there!” a woman filming the 6 second clip can be heard saying.

CNN

CNN found what appears to be one of the ladders used in the operation when reviewing footage filmed after the rescue.

CNN

CNN used these remnants to confirm the white van, a Mercedes Sprinter S19 CDI, was destroyed in a strike after the rescue.

The video of the hostage rescue shared by Israeli police and the Israeli Security Agency was geolocated to the same location by CNN.

The IDF said its forces came under heavy fire from militants, including with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and that it responded with strikes to support the team on the ground as the extraction efforts continued.

“They were firing RPGs and firing at our forces … the cynical way that Hamas is using the population to fire at our forces, embedding themselves in the civilians is tragic,” Hagari said, adding that there was “so much fire was on our forces, we needed to fire from the air and from the street.”

In one video shared with CNN by local journalist Fadi Thabet, two US-made air-to-ground hellfire missiles can be seen flying in different directions at 11:28 a.m., according to its metadata. One appears to hit the opposite side of the building where the white Mercedes van was parked outside, while the other impacts another building nearby. Footage from the aftermath of the strike shows both the van and building destroyed.

Two explosive weapons experts, Trevor Ball, a former US army explosive ordnance disposal technician, and Richard Weir, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch, confirmed the munitions.

The intense aerial bombardment destroyed apartment buildings and vehicles throughout Nuseirat camp, according to witnesses and video footage.

“Gunfire was coming from multiple sources, but we couldn’t witness everything as anyone who tried to look would be at risk of being killed,” Al Tirawi said. “It is beyond imagination – a barrage of heavy gunfire, artillery missiles, rockets.”

Another local resident, Nidal Abdo, was buying groceries at the market in Nuseirat when he said the strikes intensified. “Maybe 150 rockets fell in less than 10 minutes, while we were running away more fell on the market,” he said, adding that he had never witnessed anything like it in Gaza before. “They wiped out Nuseirat, it is hell on earth.”

In another video from Al Jazeera, verified by CNN, a truck emblazoned with a brand of dishwashing soap, resembling a vehicle commonly used to bring aid in Gaza, could be seen traveling on a road accompanied by a tank and Israeli armored vehicles about a mile from the refugee camp.

The vehicles headed away from the camp and in the direction of an area near the US military’s floating pier on the Mediterranean coast, where the extraction took place. CNN was not able to verify the time the video was filmed, so could not determine whether it took place before or after the raid.

The Israeli military denied using the US-built pier in the operation.

A senior Biden administration official tells CNN that Israeli forces did not use an aid truck in the operation. As for the use of the US pier, the official said: “They landed close to the pier but not on it.”

The IDF said two helicopters were used to evacuate the hostages, one of which they later shared footage of. The first helicopter evacuated Argamani and the second transported the three male hostages along with the then-wounded, Zamora, who later died in hospital.

A video geolocated by CNN shows a helicopter taking off from the beach in Gaza, close to the US floating pier.

The IDF released a video on Sunday capturing the moment that military officials first heard that the three male hostages had also been successfully rescued. In it, Maj. Gen. Yaron Finkelman, who commands the Southern Command of the IDF, can be heard saying, “The three diamonds have just taken off to the landing towards the country.”

The IDF said it got intelligence on the location of the hostages through different avenues, including from the United States. A US official told CNN that an American cell in Israel supported the efforts to rescue four Israeli hostages, working with Israeli forces on the operation, referring to a team that’s been in place supporting Israel since October 7 with information gathering about the hostages.

“There were no U.S. forces, no U.S. boots on the ground involved in this operation,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”

Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said that the prime minister had approved the rescue operation last Thursday and was present in the command room during the operation.

Preparations for the raid began weeks ago and hundreds of personnel from the Israeli military, domestic intelligence service and police special unit were involved, Hagari said, adding that they opted to carry it out during the day to afford them a greater element of surprise.

As part of their preparations, the military built models of the apartments the hostages were held in after receiving intelligence regarding their location

Hagari told journalists Saturday that similar raids had been called off at the last minute “more than three or four times” due to unfavorable conditions for Israeli special forces. He did not specify whether those operations concerned the same four hostages or others held in Gaza. Most of the other hostages are not being held in conditions that would allow for similar operations, he said.

Hostages being held in Gaza are frequently moved to different locations, Hagari said, adding that Argamani had previously been held elsewhere.

After their evacuation, the hostages were then flown to Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv. Argamani was later transferred to Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv to be treated alongside her mother who has late-stage brain cancer.

Alex Marquardt contributed to this report.

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