The U.S. coordinated with Israel, Egypt and others in rescuing the mother of a U.S. serviceman and her American brother-in-law who were pinned down during heavy fighting in Gaza City, a U.S. official told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
It is the only known operation of its kind to extract American citizens and their close family members during the months of devastating ground fighting and Israeli airstrikes in Gaza. The vast majority of people who have made it out of northern and central Gaza through the Rafah crossing into Egypt fled south in the initial weeks of the war. An escape from the heart of the Palestinian territory through intense combat has become far more perilous and difficult since.
Zahra Sckak, 44, made it out of Gaza on New Year's Eve, along with her brother-in-law, Farid Sukaik, an American citizen, a U.S. official told The Associated Press. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to confirm the rescue, which had been kept quiet for security reasons.
Sckak’s husband, Abedalla Sckak, was shot earlier in the Israel-Hamas war as the family fled from a building hit by an airstrike. He died days later. One of her three American sons, Spec. Ragi A. Sckak, 24, serves as an infantryman in the U.S. military.
The extraction involved the Israeli military and local Israeli officials who oversee Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the U.S. official said. There was no indication that American officials were on the ground in Gaza.
"The United States played solely a liaison and coordinating role between the Sckak family and the governments of Israel and Egypt," the official said.
A family member and U.S.-based lawyers and advocates working on the family's behalf had described Sckak and Sukaik as pinned down in a building surrounded by combatants, with little or no food and with only water from sewers to drink.
There were few immediate details of the on-the-ground operation. It took place after extended appeals from Sckak's family and U.S.-based citizens groups for help from Congress members and the Biden administration.
The State Department has said some 300 American citizens, legal permanent residents and their immediate family members remain in Gaza, at risk from ground fighting, airstrikes and widening starvation and thirst in the besieged territory.
With no known official U.S. presence on the ground, those still left in the territory face a dangerous and sometimes impossible trip to Egypt's border crossing out of Gaza, and a bureaucratic struggle for U.S., Egyptian and Israeli approval to get themselves, their parents and young children out of Gaza.
The chief of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service vowed Wednesday that the agency would hunt down every Hamas member involved in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, no matter where they are. His pledge came a day after the deputy head of the Palestinian militant group was killed in a suspected Israeli strike in Beirut.
Israel has refused to comment on reports it carried out the killing, but the remarks by David Barnea appeared to be the strongest indication yet it was behind the blast. He made a comparison to the aftermath of the slayings at the Munich Olympics in 1972, when Mossad agents tracked down and killed Palestinian militants involved in killing Israeli athletes.
The strike in Hezbollah’s southern Beirut stronghold could cause the low-intensity fighting along the Lebanon border to boil over into all-out war.
In a speech Wednesday evening, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah promised revenge, repeating his group’s statement that "this dangerous crime" of Arouri's killing will not go "without response and without punishment." But he left the audience guessing as to when and in what form.
Nasrallah said Hezbollah had so far been careful in its strategic calculus in the conflict, balancing "the need to support Gaza and to take into account Lebanese national interests." But if the Israelis launch a war on Lebanon, the group is ready for a "fight without limits."
"They will regret it," he said. “It will be very, very, very costly."
Arouri’s killing provided a morale boost for Israelis still reeling from the Oct. 7 attack as the militants continue to put up stiff resistance in Gaza and hold scores of hostages.
Barnea said the Mossad is "committed to settling accounts with the murderers who raided the Gaza envelope," referring to the area of southern Israel that Hamas attacked. He vowed to pursue everyone involved, "directly or indirectly," including "planners and envoys."
"It'll take time, as it took time after the Munich massacre, but we will put our hands on them wherever they are," he said. Barnea was speaking at the funeral of former Mossad head Zvi Zamir, who died at age 98 a day earlier.
Zamir headed the intelligence agency at the time of the Munich attack, in which Palestinian militants killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic delegation. Israel subsequently killed members of the Black September militant group who carried out the attack.
Hezbollah and the Israeli military have been exchanging fire almost daily over the Israeli-Lebanese border since the war in Gaza began. But Nasrallah has appeared reluctant to escalate it further, perhaps fearing a repeat of the monthlong 2006 war, when Israel heavily bombed Beirut and southern Lebanon.
At the same time, Hezbollah also faces pressure to show support for its ally Hamas.
Nasrallah's comments on balancing interests reflected the group's wariness of being blamed by Lebanese if its exchanges with Israel spiral into an all-out war that brings destruction similar to the 2006 war. He avoided specifics on any possible reprisal for Arouri's killing, though he said he would address the issue further in a speech Friday.
But he said if Israel attacks Lebanon, it would be in the national interest to fight back.
"We are not afraid of war," he said. "If the enemy thinks about launching a war against Lebanon, then we will fight back without ceilings and without limits.”
Hezbollah boasts an arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets and missiles as well as different types of drones.
The United States has sought to prevent any widening of the conflict, including by deploying two aircraft carriers and other military assets to the region. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was expected in the region this week.
Nasrallah praised Arouri as well as the group's Oct. 7, attack, saying it "brought light back onto the Palestinian cause after it was nearly forgotten." He said Israel has so far failed in all its objectives in the Gaza war and was suffering damage to its international reputation.
The Israeli military chief of staff, Lt. Col. Herzi Halevi, visited Israel’s northern border with Lebanon on Wednesday, saying “We are on high readiness in the north.”
Hamas leaders clearly expect Hezbollah to have its back.
In an interview Saturday, three days before Arouri's killing, The Associated Press asked Beirut-based Hamas political official Osama Hamdan if the group was worried about the possibility of Israel assassinating its officials in Lebanon.
Hamdan predicted that Hezbollah would not let that go unpunished, and an all-out war would ensue.
ISRAEL SEEKS ‘CLEAR VICTORY’ IN GAZA
The focus of the war remains on Gaza, where Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel is seeking a "clear victory" over Hamas, which has ruled the territory since 2007.
Israel’s air, ground and sea assault in Gaza has killed more than 22,300 people, two-thirds of them women and children, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory.
The count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants.
The campaign has driven some 85% of Gaza's population from their homes, forcing hundreds of thousands of people into overcrowded shelters or teeming tent camps in Israeli-designated safe areas that the military has nevertheless bombed. A quarter of Gaza’s population face starvation, according to the United Nations, as Israeli restrictions and heavy fighting hinder aid delivery.
Israel appears far from achieving its goals of crushing Hamas and returning the estimated 129 hostages still held by the group.
Gallant said several thousand Hamas fighters remain in northern Gaza, where Israeli troops have been battling militants for over two months and where entire neighborhoods have been blasted into rubble.
Heavy fighting is also underway in central Gaza and the southern city of Khan Younis, where Israeli officials say Hamas’ military structure is still largely intact. Yehya Sinwar, Hamas’ top leader in Gaza, and his deputies have thus far eluded Israeli forces.
U.N. associate spokesperson Florencia Soto Niño said officials from the U.N.'s humanitarian office and the World Health Organization visited the Al Amal hospital in Khan Younis on Tuesday, which was reportedly hit by a deadly strike, and witnessed extensive damage.
The U.N. and its humanitarian partners have been unable to deliver aid to northern Gaza for three days, Soto Niño said.
The U.N. humanitarian office has warned that "Gaza is a public health disaster in the making," she said.
Since Oct. 7, more than 400,000 cases of infectious diseases have been reported, Soto Niño said, including some 180,000 people with upper respiratory infections and over 136,000 cases of diarrhea – half among children under the age of 5.
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