Fleeting celebrations in Israel; Palestinians grapple with bloodshed

In Israel, the news of four hostages rescued from Gaza was met with cheering crowds and tearful scenes of reuniting families. Officials hailed the operation as miraculous and heroic, and offered a rare win for Israel’s embattled Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

But it came at the expense of hundreds of Palestinians, who suffered one of the bloodiest days in Gaza. Video filmed by an NBC News crew on the ground showed streets scattered with charred bodies, survivors gathering body parts into sacks, rescuers carrying mangled and blood-soaked children into chaotic hospitals overwhelmed with the injured.

By Sunday, joy in Israel was fading and giving way to the realities of a war that has dragged on for nine months and whose fissures and deep divisions remained largely unchanged by the rescue.

“What we saw yesterday is actually failure of the negotiations,” Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, said in a phone interview with NBC News.

“Had there been a cease-fire, these hostages would already have been at home, and the civilians that were killed yesterday would be alive,” Mekelberg said.

The destruction wrought during the rescue is unlikely to ease Israel’s isolation from an international community that has censured Israel for months over the civilian death toll in Gaza. United Nations Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese said in a statement that she was “Relieved that four hostages have been released,” but that “it should not have come at the expense of Palestinians.”  

“Israel has used hostages to legitimize killing, injuring, maiming, starving and traumatizing Palestinians in Gaza,” she said.

At home, opposition leader Benny Gantz was expected to resign from Israel’s war cabinet on Saturday over Netanyahu’s failure to adopt a postwar plan.

Gantz delayed his statement after the rescue and Netanyahu asked him not to leave the emergency government with a post on X.

But the delay may be brief. Gantz will be making a statement on Sunday evening, where he is expected to announce his resignation and withdraw his National Unity Party from the coalition. If he does so, it would leave Netanyahu to rely on support from far-right members of his government who have loudly opposed a cease-fire deal, including the one proposed by President Joe Biden earlier this month.

As of Sunday, Gaza’s Ministry of Health said at least 270 people were killed, pushing the overall death toll past 37,000. Another 700 were injured in the assault and rescue operation, and more were believed to be buried in the rubble. Video from an NBC News crew on the ground captured the aftermath in Nuseirat that included a rush of wounded at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir Al-Balah, including the bodies of surviving children wrapped in gauze that was soaked pink.

The Associated Press reported that a baby was among the dead, and that small children could be heard crying as they were covered in blood.

In scene filmed by the NBC News crew in Gaza, a man on his knees wept next to next to five bodies wrapped in blankets, “Every day we say farewell to friends, every day we say farewell to loved ones.”

The rare and limited rescue operation that resulted in mass casualties highlighted that such an approach is not likley to be viable for the 120 or so hostages that remain.

This was acknowledged by IDF spokesperson Daniel Hagari, who said Saturday “we know we can’t do operations to rescue all of them.”

Abu Obaida, a military spokesperson for Al-Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas, said the operation killed other Israeli hostages, and that such raids pose a great danger to others. NBC News is unable to confirm this information.

Already there are fresh calls for a cease-fire deal to save the remaining hostages and end the war, but Netanyahu has increasingly distanced himself from a plan announced by President Joe Biden.

Biden said Saturday that he welcomed the safe return of the hostages, adding “We won’t stop working until all the hostages come home and a cease-fire is reached, and it’s essential to happen.”

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum also reiterated their calls for a cease-fire and continue to back Biden’s three-part plan to end the war. During his weekly Sunday address, Pope Francis urged Israel and Hamas to accept the peace proposals “for the sake of the Palestinians and Israelis.”

Netanyahu has also come under fire in Israel for his conduct following Saturday’s celebrations after he spoke on the phone with Noa Aragmani, one of the hostages whose kidnapping was captured on video, following her rescue.

The rescued hostages are Aragmani, 25; Almog Meir Jan, 21; Andrey Kozlov, 27; and Shlomi Ziv, 40. They were among those kidnapped by Hamas during the Nova music festival on Oct. 7.

After nine months of captivity, some of the reunions were bittersweet. Meir’s father, Yossi, died just hours before his son was rescued.

Aragmani was reunited with her mother, Liora who is suffering from terminal brain cancer. Her father, Yaakov, wept as he described their reunion in an interview this morning with Israel’s Army radio.

“Unfortunately Noa’s mother is in a very bad situation, she hardly looked at Noa, it wasn’t the reaction I was expecting that after eight months this would be their encounter. It was very difficult,” he said.

Netanyahu “wants to bask in the sun of a success, but when there was an announcement of five soldiers killed weeks ago, he won’t pick up the phone,” Mekelberg said.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid has already called out the Prime Minister for meeting with the families of the rescued while neglecting the families of those who have been killed.

“If you are the prime minister — you are the prime minister of both successes and failures,” Lapid told the Kan public broadcaster. “Disappearing when things don’t go your way is disgraceful, but is this something we didn’t know about before?”

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