Operation Arnon: How four hostages were freed from Hamas captivity in central Gaza

Daylight mission to surprise captors; special forces concurrently raid two buildings where hostages held by Palestinian families; rescue vehicle breaks down after coming under fire

The Israel Defence Forces, Shin Bet security agency and Israel Police on Saturday morning carried out one of the most daring, complex, high-risk yet successful operations amid the war against Hamas, rescuing four hostages alive from the terror group’s captivity in the Gaza Strip. The mission was conducted in broad daylight and in an area where Israeli forces had not previously operated.

The operation to rescue Noa Argamani, 26, Almog Meir Jan, 21, Andrey Kozlov, 27, and Shlomi Ziv, 41, was planned out weeks in advance, according to information seen by The Times of Israel. Known originally as “Seeds of Summer,” its name was changed after the event to “Operation Arnon” after Yamam officer Chief Inspector Arnon Zmora, who was critically wounded by Hamas fire amid the rescue of three of the hostages and later died of his wounds.

During the planning period, intelligence on the hostages’ locations was obtained and studied. Amid the war, Hamas has repeatedly moved hostages around Gaza, in an attempt to prevent Israeli rescue operations.

In the days leading up to the rescue, the police’s elite Yamam counter-terrorism unit drilled various models of the extraction from central Gaza’s Nuseirat, which military officials said were “similar to the Entebbe raid” of 1976, when Israeli commandos rescued more than 100 hostages in Uganda.

Also in the days before the mission, the military launched a new operation in eastern Bureij — to the east of Nuseirat — and in east Deir al-Balah — to the southeast of where the hostages were rescued — in an apparent feint to reduce Hamas’s defences in Nuseirat.

And according to a diplomatic source, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant approved the operation on Thursday evening when a war cabinet and security cabinet meeting was cancelled.

Simultaneous attacks

Ultimately, the raid was carried out Saturday morning, after the Shin Bet recommended it would be an optimal time to surprise the Hamas terrorists holding the four hostages captive. Previous hostage rescue operations in Gaza have taken place overnight.

At 11:00 a.m. the order was given to the Yamam and Shin Bet officers to raid two multi-storey buildings in Nuseirat, where Hamas was holding the hostages.

Nuseirat is one of the few areas of Gaza where ground troops have not yet entered during the IDF’s ground offensive against the Hamas terror group.

The buildings were about 200 metres apart, and the decision to go for both simultaneously was due to the possibility that Hamas may murder the hostages after identifying the rescue operation at the other location.

Argamani was held by Hamas guards alone in the home of a Palestinian family, while the other three hostages were held at a separate home, also with guards. According to the IDF, Hamas pays such families to hold the hostages in their houses. (Meir Jan said on his release that he, Kozlov and Ziv were held together throughout their eight months in captivity, in a total of four homes, Channel 12 reported on Saturday night.)

Argamani’s rescue was described by military officials as relatively smooth considering the circumstances. But a major gun battle erupted at the home where Meir Jan, Kozlov, and Ziv were held.

Zmora, the commander of the rescue team at the second building, where the three hostages were being held, was critically wounded by Hamas fire and later died of his wounds. The Hamas guards were killed in the exchange.

Under fire, and stuck

A short while later, as the three hostages and Zmora were being extracted from Nuseirat, their vehicle came under fire, causing it to get stuck in Gaza. Other forces quickly reached the scene to rescue them, bringing them to a makeshift helipad in Gaza, from where they were airlifted to Tel Hashomer Hospital in central Israel.

Noa was similarly taken by helicopter to the hospital, shortly before the other three were extracted from Gaza.

According to the IDF, the rescue forces faced a massive amount of gunfire and RPG fire in Nuseirat, leading the ground troops and the Israeli Air Force to carry out major strikes in the area.

The strikes, targeting the areas from where Hamas operatives were opening fire, were aimed at protecting the rescue forces and the hostages.

Hamas’s government media office said at least 210 people were killed amid the operation.

The IDF acknowledged that it killed Palestinian civilians amid the fighting, but it placed the blame on Hamas for holding hostages and fighting in a dense civilian environment.

“We know about under 100 (Palestinian) casualties. I don’t know how many of them are terrorists,” IDF Spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said in a briefing with journalists, reported by Reuters.

Hamas operatives also fired anti-aircraft missiles at Israeli helicopters over the area amid the operation, without managing to score any hits.

Aside from Zmora, several more troops were slightly hurt by shrapnel amid the operation.

Third rescue in 8 months

Military officials said the mission was a “hair’s breadth” between success and failure.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi and Shin Bet head Ronen Bar commanded the operation together. Netanyahu and Gallant also observed the mission from inside the war room.

Halevi and the commander of Yamam later agreed to change the name of the rescue mission to “Operation Arnon,” in honour of the slain officer.

All of the hostages rescued by the IDF from Gaza, including the four on Saturday, were saved from buildings and not from Hamas’s vast network of tunnels.

Many other rescue operations have been planned, extensively in some cases, but were ultimately deemed too dangerous or otherwise impossible to carry out.

Argamani, Meir Jan, Kozlov and Ziv, who had been in Hamas captivity for eight months, were all in good condition, according to initial medical assessments.

The four had been abducted from the Supernova music festival near the community of Re’im on the morning of October 7, when some 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists killed 1,200 people and took 251 hostages in a murderous rampage in southern Israel.

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