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‘Ultimate surprise’: How an Israeli raid freed 4 hostages in Gaza

KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip — They arrived in the middle of the day at the Nuseirat refugee camp. No one suspected a thing until the shots rang out.

The Israeli raid caught everyone off guard, from the Hamas terrorists guarding four hostages in two different buildings to the thousands of civilians who soon found themselves running for their lives through a blistering crossfire.

By the time it was over, four Israeli hostages had been brought home alive and mostly unscathed.

For Israel, it was the most successful operation of the eight-month war, bringing nationwide elation.

Here’s how it unfolded, according to the Israeli military and Palestinian witnesses:

Noa Argamani, a 26-year-old who had emerged as an icon of the hostage crisis, was being held in one apartment, and three male hostages — Almog Meir Jan, 22, Andrey Kozlov, 27, and Shlomi Ziv, 41, were in another about 200 yards away. All had been abducted from a desert rave-turned-massacre site during the Oct. 7 terrorist attack that ignited the war.

They had been moved among different locations but were never held in Hamas’ notorious tunnels. At the time of their rescue they were in locked rooms guarded by Hamas gunmen. Israeli intelligence figured out where they were and commandos spent weeks practicing the raid on life-size models of the buildings, according to Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military spokesman.

“It needs to be like a surgical operation, like a brain operation,” he said.

He said they decided to strike at midday because it would be the “ultimate surprise,” and to target the two buildings simultaneously. Planners feared that if they hit one first, the captors would hear the commotion and kill the hostages in the other.

Hagari declined to say how the Israeli forces made their way to the heart of Nuseirat, a crowded, built-up refugee camp in central Gaza dating back to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Based on previous operations, at least some of the special forces who took part in the raid likely dressed like Palestinians and spoke fluent Arabic.

Kamal Benaji, a Palestinian displaced from Gaza City who was living in a tent in central Nuseirat, said he saw a small truck with a car in front and another behind pull up in front of a building on the street where he had pitched his tent.

The commandos sprang from the truck and one of them threw a grenade into the house. “Clashes and explosions broke out everywhere,” he said.

The rescue of Argamani seems to have gone smoothly, while the team extracting the three other hostages ran into trouble.

Chief Inspector Arnon Zamora, an officer in an elite police commando unit, was mortally wounded during the break-in, in which all the Hamas guards were killed, Amos Harel, a veteran defense correspondent, wrote in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper. Then the rescue vehicle carrying the three hostages got stuck in the camp, he said.

Palestinian fighters armed with machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades opened fire on the rescuers, as Israel called in heavy strikes from land and air to cover their evacuation to the coast. “A lot of fire was around us,” Hagari said.

It was this bombardment that appears to have killed and wounded many Palestinians.

The Israeli rescuers eventually made it to the coast. Zamora was evacuated by helicopter and later died of his wounds in a hospital. The military renamed the operation in his honor.

“We called the hostages diamonds, so we say we have the diamonds in our hands,” Hagari said.

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