Head of elite commando unit recounts ‘all or nothing’ operation to free hostages

In TV interviews, Yamam commander says need for operation to succeed ‘rested heavily’ on his shoulders, hails courage of captives; member of unit gives step-by-step account of raid

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

Commander of Israel Police's Yamam elite counterterrorism unit speaks about the mission to rescue two hostages from Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, February 15, 2024. (Channel 12 screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Commander of Israel Police's Yamam elite counterterrorism unit speaks about the mission to rescue two hostages from Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, February 15, 2024. (Channel 12 screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The commander of the elite counterterrorism force that rescued two Israeli hostages from the Gaza Strip described the extraordinary stakes of carrying out the operation, in a television interview aired Thursday.

Fernando Marman, 61, and Louis Har, 70, were rescued early Monday from a building in the southern city of Rafah in a long-planned operation, only the second time that Israel has managed to successfully free captives by force since October 7.

The commander of Yamam, whose identity is barred from publication due to the sensitive nature of his role, told Channel 13 news that the success of the high-stakes operation “rested heavily” on his shoulders.

The Kan public broadcaster aired a snippet of an interview with the commander that is set to air Friday night, while another interview he did along with members of the unit who carried out the rescue operation was previewed on Channel 12 news, and will also air in full on Friday.

“An operation like this sits on the fence between success and failure. It’s all or nothing. There is no middle ground. From the moment you get your hands on the hostages, you have a mission no more important… to bring them home safely,” he told Channel 13.

“Everyone wants to be a part of this operation, especially in this period, when you look at it, not just at the level of the unit, but also at a national level,” he added.

Speaking with Kan, he said the most important part of the operation was their “ability to travel by foot through hostile territory, during a very dark night, to go far by foot, to sneak through and arrive at the decisive point.”

A member of the unit, whose identity remained hidden, told Channel 12 step-by-step how they entered the building.

“I laid the explosive charge on the door, ready to be triggered, I received approval from the commander to activate it, and at that moment, I blew it up, and the door blew open,” the commando recalled.

“From the moment you break in, you enter for real, it’s a realm of uncertainties. You have no idea what will happen,” he said, adding that the quiet neighborhood suddenly became very loud. “A lot of gunfire, from many directions. We were fired on inside the house, even through the walls.”

“Here it begins. From our view, the hourglass flips over. We are on borrowed time to bring Fernando and Louis to a secure location. I entered the building, I identified two terrorists in front of me, I identified Fernando and Louis ducking on the floor, I yelled, ‘IDF!'” he continued, explaining that “IDF” was probably more recognizable than Yamam, and they wanted to ensure the captives knew who they were.

“I took Louis by the leg, I took him to the balcony. They said, ‘I don’t believe it.’ They said ‘thank you,'” he continued.

In the Channel 13 interview, the commander described withdrawing with the hostages as the most dangerous stage of the operation, with the battle raging all around.

“You eliminated the terrorists in the house, you rescued the hostages, now the most critical stage is to leave that location to a safe place, and the most important thing for you is that the hostages won’t be harmed,” he said.

A screenshot from footage from February 12, 2024, from an APC showing Shayetet 13 commandos asking Fernando Marman (left) and Louis Har (right) about their wellbeing, shortly after they were rescued after being held by Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip since October 7. (Israel Defense Forces)

Describing the carefully planned operation, the Yamam commander said that the soldiers knew from the moment they entered what to do if they could not bring the hostages back down through the staircase. During the operation, it was decided to bring them down from the second floor by rope.

The commander explained that the soldiers knew their job was to protect them with their lives, even if they were harmed.

“That is the mission, when you enter to rescue hostages, we know that in the end, it can result in injuries to the soldiers, or their death, but that’s our job.”

“You see for yourself elderly people sitting in a building for so many days… We understood that their health condition was reasonable. We needed to, first of all, make sure they understood, that they knew we came to rescue them, we came to take them home. And to our surprise, they cooperated… in the rescue process while under fire,” he said, commending the courage of Marman and Har.

The freed captives were hustled into armored vehicles, driven to a makeshift helipad deep inside Gaza, then transferred to a military helicopter that brought them to Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, wrapping up the entire operation within an hour.

Marman and Har, who were both abducted from Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak, were among 253 hostages kidnapped on October 7, as thousands of Hamas-led terrorists from Gaza stormed through southern Israel, massacring some 1,200 people and carrying out other atrocities against mostly civilian victims.

From L-R: Gabriela Leimberg kisses her brother Fernando Marman, Clara Marman next to her partner Louis Har, at the Sheba Medical Center, February 12, 2024 (Courtesy)

It is believed that over 130 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and four hostages were released before that.

Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 11 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military.

The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 30 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza. One more person is listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

Hamas is also holding the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014, as well as two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Emanuel Fabian and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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