Noa Argamani’s daring rescue – a birthday present all Israel can celebrate

Noa Argamani was returned to her family in time to celebrate her father's birthday
Noa Argamani was returned to her family in time to celebrate her father's birthday - AVIVA KLOMPAS
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It was one of the defining moments of Oct 7.

A terrified Noa Argamani desperately clawed at the air, reaching out for her boyfriend as Hamas terrorists swept her from Israel into Gaza on the back of a speeding motorbike.

“Don’t kill me!” the 26-year-old student screamed, terror etched across her face.

On Saturday, Ms Argamani was once again on the minds of the Israeli people, but this time it was her return after 245 days in Hamas captivity they were seeing.

Her beaming father, whose birthday it was, shared an emotional embrace with Ms Argamani after she was freed during a daring daytime rescue operation involving hundreds of Israeli troops.

What a present I received,” Yaakov, her father, declared.

Israelis danced on the streets and cheered on the beaches of Tel Aviv to celebrate the successful daytime raid which rescued four captives – Ms Argamani, Almog Meir Jan, 22, Andrey Kozlov, 27, and Shlomi Ziv, 40.

Their return was hailed by the hostage families support group as a “miraculous triumph”.

With the command “Go!” from the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, the audacious rescue began at 11am on Saturday morning.

Lt Gen Herzi Halevi oversaw the mission “shoulder to shoulder” with Ronen Bar, the head of Shin Bet, the domestic intelligence agency.

The air was thick with tension in the joint command room of the Israel Securities Authority as dozens of computer screens flickered to life, displaying one of the “most complicated” missions ever undertaken by Israeli forces in real time.

For weeks, hundreds of highly trained IDF, Shin Bet, police and special forces officers had game-planned the rescue, using models of two buildings deep inside Nuseirat in Gaza, where “precise” intelligence indicated Ms Argamani and the three male hostages were being held in two separate buildings.

Satisfied with the accuracy of the information, the green light was finally given by Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, and Yoav Gallant, the defence minister, on Thursday evening.

The hostages, code-named “diamonds”, had all been kidnapped from the now infamous Nova music festival and were being held by armed guards in locked rooms in low-rise apartment blocks just 200 metres apart from each other.

The “high-risk” rescue was made more complex by the “cruel and cynical” decision to embed them within the dense civilian population in flats occupied by families, Rear-Adml Daniel Hagari, the IDF spokesperson, said in a postoperative media briefing.

The Israeli forces had taken a call to launch the operation in broad daylight to maximise the element of surprise in a residential area that was swarming with Hamas militants.

The hostages were known as 'diamonds' in the operation, which soldiers had been practising for two weeks
The hostages were known as 'diamonds' in the operation, which soldiers had been practising for two weeks - MARKO DJURICA/REUTERS

The proximity of the two buildings added to the intense pressure on the front-line commandos, who were backed up by hundreds of soldiers who had entered Gaza by air, land and sea.

The two squads had to enact their raids on the separate premises at 11.25am with the precision of a “brain operation” said Mr Hagari, acting “simultaneously” to reduce the chances of harm to any of the hostages.

Unsuspecting guards in the building where Ms Argamani was imprisoned were quickly overwhelmed. “There was a knock on the door. A voice said, ‘It’s the IDF. We’ve come to take you home’,” Noa later recounted from the safety of an Israel hospital.

But a fierce shoot-out took place in the apartment holding the three men. In the crossfire, Arnon Zmora, 36, the commander of an elite police squad and a married father of two, was mortally wounded.

Mr Netanyahu said the rescue operation would be referred to as “Operation Arnon” in tribute to the slain officer.

As the operatives were forced to shoot their way out of buildings to whisk the “diamonds” to Air Force helicopters waiting on the beach, scenes of chaos erupted in the crowded streets, said Mr Hagari who was watching the screens in the command centre.

“As we started to go out of the buildings a lot of fire was around us. Running terrorists in the streets with RPGs [rocket propelled grenades] to the cars, to the warriors,” he said.

At one point, the rescue vehicle of the three male hostages reportedly got stuck in the middle of the raging gunfire because of a technical fault.

Amid the intense extraction, the Israeli Air Force also conducted heavy air strikes on pre-planned Hamas targets in Nuseirat.

Sources in the Nuseirat refugee camp claimed Israeli special forces entered the market using a vehicle used to move the furniture of displaced Gazans. The IDF, when asked if its operatives had dressed as civilians, refused to disclose confidential operational details.

At least 210 dead Palestinians were brought to local hospitals, a Hamas health official said, with images and footage of their bloodied bodies flooding local media.

Mr Hagari said the IDF was aware of about 100 Palestinian casualties but did not yet know how many were terrorists. He accused Hamas of endangering civilians by hiding the hostages within the population and shooting at the Israeli forces as they rescued them.

None of the Israeli hostages were harmed by the exchange of gunfire. Grainy footage shows Ms Argamani being led across a beach into a waiting helicopter, followed by the three men in a second helicopter.

Footage from inside the helicopter shows Noa being quickly bundled inside and flown to safety.

All four of the hostages were transported to Israel’s Tel Hashomer hospital in Tel Aviv for a physical check-up and to be reunited with their relieved and overjoyed families.

Ms Argamani’s homecoming was particularly poignant, offering her a precious final chance to see her dying mother Liora, who has stage four brain cancer.

Earlier this year, her mother had pleaded with world leaders to enable her to have a “last hug” with her child.

“I am asking you, president Joe Biden, I don’t have a lot of time left in this world. It may be my last wish. I’m really begging you. Please help me,” she said in an emotional video plea.

On Saturday, her father praised God, Israel’s leaders and her rescuers for the gift of bringing his daughter home safely on his birthday.

“Thank you very much, thousands of thanks, to each and every one who had a hand in this matter,” he said. “Noa is fine, thank God, she looks wonderful, looks excellent.”

In a video of Ms Argamani speaking on the phone with Mr Netanyahu she said, “I am very moved. I haven’t heard Hebrew for so long.”

During an early evening press conference, the families of the other freed hostages also thanked the security forces and expressed their condolences over the fallen counter-terrorism officer.

“There’s a lot of happiness today, a lot of tears,” said Anna, Mr Kozlov’s aunt.

Orit, Mr Jan’s mother, said: “Almog asked to say: We have a strong nation, thanks very much. I support the soldiers, I hope all the hostages come home safely.”

Orit Jan was reunited with her son Almog after he had been kidnapped by Hamas at the festival on Oct 7
Orit Jan was reunited with her son Almog after he had been kidnapped by Hamas at the festival on Oct 7 - ISRAELI ARMY/via REUTERS

The Hostages Families Forum praised the “heroic operation” but called for renewed international commitment to pressure Hamas to accept a proposed ceasefire deal that would return the remaining 120 captives to Israel.

On Saturday, Sami Abu Zuhri, a senior Hamas official, said that “regaining four captives after nine months of fighting is a sign of failure not an achievement”.

Ismail Haniyeh, the group’s political leader, said there would be no deal that does not achieve security for Palestinians.

Back in Israel, Mr Netanyahu praised the “creativity and boldness” of the operation’s leaders.

He said Israel “will not rest until we complete our mission and return all of our hostages home – both living and deceased”.

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