‘I dragged him toward me and said, “We’ve come to take you home”’

If a Hollywood scriptwriter had written a script like the Rafah hostage rescue operation, he would have been immediately asked to remove a few scenes to make the story more realistic.

By Eyal Levi & Itsik Saban | | Topics: Gaza, Hamas
Members of the Israel Police Counter Terror Unit who took part in the rescue mission, February 2024. Photo by Yehonatan Shaul.
Members of the Israel Police Counter Terror Unit who took part in the rescue mission, February 2024. Photo by Yehonatan Shaul.

On Monday morning, a moment after they completed the rescue of Fernando Marman and Louis Har from Hamas captivity in the heart of Rafah, Supt. Y., the commander of the primary assault force for “Operation Yad Zahav,” sat in the vehicle on its way back to Israel and said to the fighters, who were regulating their breathing: “We won’t rest on our laurels for a moment, and we hope that we are only getting started.”

There’s probably no better way to describe the heroic rescue operation that took place in the heart of enemy territory infested with terrorists. If a Hollywood scriptwriter had placed a script like that on a producer’s table, he would have been immediately asked to remove a few scenes to make the story more realistic.

“Everything is possible,” explains Supt. Y, who met us this week at the Yamam—Israel Police Counter-Terrorism Unit base in central Israel. “Regarding our unit and our friends from the Israel Security Agency [Shin Bet] and from other Israel Defense Forces units that took part in the operation, even if the conditions right now don’t seem right for the rescue of more hostages, it doesn’t mean that we won’t do everything to keep trying, whether its intelligence or operations, and we’ll take every risk on ourselves to carry out the next operation.”

Supt. Y. met us together with three other Yamam officers, who on Monday morning were at the heart of the operation. Four men you may have met this week in the supermarket or asked about the time on the street, but only a few know about the dramatic event they participated in and how good it is that they are protecting us.

Supt. Y., 35, married with one child, who serves as deputy squadron commander in Yamam, already knew about the operation a few weeks ago. Because of the secrecy, only he and the squadron commander received the initial information about the possibility of rescuing hostages from the depths of Rafah.

“There was great secrecy about the identity of the hostages we were going to rescue,” he says. “During the following weeks, we revealed the information to the unit captains, and only a week before the operation, at the end of the preparations, did the operational soldiers learn who the target was.”

Every soldier who took part knew everything about Fernando Marman, 60, and Louis Har, 70, who were captured on Oct. 7 from their home in Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak near the Gaza Strip—their facial features, qualities and personalities. They also knew that the operation would be tough because it would take place in a Hamas stronghold that the IDF still hadn’t targeted, full of terrorists for whom Rafah is their last bastion.

The unit trained non-stop during those weeks, with an emphasis on the fact that the difference between success and failure was measured in millimeters.

“There’s an extremely extensive process of intelligence gathering for the event,” says Supt. Y. “We go down to fine details and there’s a long process of learning the territory, of understanding what the challenges are in planning.”

Cmdr. A., 35, married with two children, is the only reservist among the four policemen we met. A veteran, experienced soldier who quickly understood that everything he had done in his military service thus far didn’t compare to what he was going to experience.

With all the excitement, the policemen also understood the possibility that some of them wouldn’t return from the mission. The more intelligence that came in, the more they understood the complexity of the operation.

“We don’t talk about risks, we do the best we can, and we’re always developing and sharpening the plans and how we act to increase the chances among the decision-makers,” Supt. Y. explains.


We know every window at the target

The operation was supposed to take place several times, but it was postponed because the conditions in the field weren’t yet ripe. At the start of the week, when the stars aligned and every force knew its mission—not only Yamam but also those supporting it, Shin Bet, Shayetet 13 naval commandos, and the Israeli Air Force—the go-ahead was given.

This kind of operation involves hundreds of people.

“The operation was planned to the level that each one of us knew exactly which window he was supposed to guard or which building threatened him during the operation,” says Supt. Y. “In breaking into the building, the soldiers knew how and when and which means they would use.”

They are young men with families. I asked them if all this risk was worth the rescue of two people. Cmdr. D. doesn’t think for long and answers: “We don’t look at it in terms of a person being worth the life of another, and if two soldiers die the operation is a failure. It’s not a zero-sum game. There is something here that’s far bigger. I won’t say that we in the unit are worth less, but we understand that we’re ready to be harmed for something bigger than a single person, that’s who we are.”

Cmdr. D., 34, married with one child, said that the day before the operation he was mostly concerned for his family.

“I took out life insurance. Seriously. I sorted it out the day before the operation,” he says. “Since Oct. 7 everything has become much more real, and one needs to be practical. We’ve lost friends. I’m responsible for my family.”

Cmdr. A. said he thought the same thing. “I checked the insurance and I saw that I had left a decent sum, my wife would be sorted,” he jokes.


High-risk, low pulse

The day of the operation arrived. Alongside the excitement and the tension, there were also fears, affecting Cmdr. A. “On a personal level, there was fear. During the preparations and the battle procedure, I had big butterflies in my stomach and thoughts about what might happen and how to respond during the operation. However, during the operation itself, my pulse was a steady 60. I can’t explain it.”

Before departure, platoon commander Ch. Supt. A. came to speak with the men. Yamam has lost nine members since 7 Oct. and the unit commander, Dep. Supt. H., lost his son, who served in the Shin Bet and was killed at the Supernova music festival massacre. Even while he was sitting shivah, he continued managing Yamam operations.

Yamam began the operation with the knowledge of past failings in hostage rescues. Thirty years ago, in October 1994, Sayeret Matkal (the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) failed to rescue Sgt. Nachson Wachsman, who was taken hostage by Hamas in northern Jerusalem. He was killed during the operation, as was Sgt. Nir Poraz. During the current Gaza war, three hostages—Yotam Haim, Alon Shamriz and Samar Talalka—were killed by IDF fire, even though they had succeeded in escaping from their captors.


Returning fire

Once at the target, the Yamam operatives knew exactly what to do, says Cmdr. A. “We place a munitions charge on the door and burst inside. I enter the room first and identify opposite me two terrorists, I deal with them both. I see Fernando and Louis on the floor, Y. got Fernando and succeeded in taking him to the balcony. I grabbed Louis, dragged him towards me, and said, ‘We’ve come to take you home.’”

Q: You weren’t afraid, when you killed the terrorists, that maybe you were mistakenly shooting at the hostages?

“The faces of Louis and Fernando have already been in my head for a long time. They were engraved in my mind, and I knew that if I wasn’t sure then I wouldn’t shoot.”

Q: Even at the price of the terrorists shooting at you?

“I think we’ve all already made our peace with that.”


No longer an imaginary operation

Supt. Y. and Cmdr. A. took Fernando and Louis to the balcony and lay on top of them to protect them, since the munitions charge and the bursts of gunfire had woken up the street, and armed terrorists were leaving their homes.

“Inside the house there was massive fire through the walls and the windows,” says Supt. Y. “A terrorist or two threw grenades at us, so D. came with his team and killed them.”

“Every terrorist who peeked took a bullet. The supporting forces were very strong and precise.”

Says Cmdr. E., “At a certain point we began to get supporting fire from the IAF—I don’t think they have ever fired from so close to our forces before. Just a few meters.”

The force understood that they needed to complete the mission quickly as the area was becoming hotter by the moment. They removed Fernando and Louis by rappelling from the second floor of the building. “That was planned,” Supt. Y. says. “The preference was to remove them quickly and not to spend too much time dealing with the terrorists inside the home.”

“Fernando and Louis were in shock because of the shooting and explosions, but they behaved excellently,” says Cmdr. A. “They seemed cool, sharp. They were incredibly disciplined; we didn’t think they would be like that. I told them: ‘Soon you’ll be home, and you can invite me for coffee.’”

Yamam returned to Israeli territory crowned with glory. The fact that there were no injuries will long be taught in military schools.

Supt. Y. says there weren’t special celebrations at the base. They cleaned the weapons, organized the special equipment, and are now waiting for the next operation.