Al Jazeera Staff, 11 Jun 2024

How was the killing of nearly 300 people justified in the name of extracting four?

It was hailed as a great success in Israel. A bloody, violent ambush that turned into a massacre of nearly 300 displaced people.

Suddenly, they found themselves “descending into the depths of hell”, Al Jazeera’s Maram Humaid wrote on June 8.

An Israeli raid on the Nuseirat refugee camp, ostensibly to free four Israeli captives held there, but reportedly resulted in the death of three more including one US citizen, according to the Qassam Brigades.

That is, besides the at least 274 Palestinians killed.

What happened in Nuseirat? How did Israel kill so many people? Here is a breakdown of the attack:

What happened?

The attack on Nuseirat was ostensibly to free four captives taken on October 7: Noa Argamani, 25, Almog Meir Jan, 21, Andrey Kozlov, 27, and Shlomi Ziv, 40.

It began around 11am, with what witnesses say were several civilian trucks and cars entering a neighbourhood near the camp’s market.

One was loaded with furniture to appear it was moving displaced people, while another had commercial markings on its exterior. There were what appeared to be civilian vehicles in the group, as well.

To provide air cover, Israeli forces started bombing from above, hitting the busy market area the hardest, likely to spread as much panic and distress as possible, as well as to inflict maximum casualties.

Telegram channels began circulating news that bombings could be heard in the camp at around 11:35am.

At a certain point, the convoy separated into two groups of vehicles. Later, investigation revealed that each group had headed towards a location where Israeli captives were held.

The three male captives were at one location, where Al Jazeera believes that a witness account details how soldiers got to the house.

There, heavily armed soldiers jumped out of the vehicles and ran through a cluster of makeshift tents put up by displaced people.

The witness describes how everyone cowered in fear inside their flimsy shelters, little more than a piece of fabric between them and the armed soldiers.

At the end of their run, they arrived at a garden wall, through which they punched a hole to approach a quiet apartment building from the back.

Al Jazeera has not been able to ascertain whether this was the only access point to the building, which is surrounded by a garden on at least two sides and likely faces onto a road.

Noa Argamani was held at another location, in a building facing a narrow, tree-lined street.

There, a truck pulled up, supported by soldiers who were shooting on sight, killing one person at the entrance of the building. From footage Al Jazeera has reviewed, there were no weapons near or on the killed individual.

A ladder was extended from the truck to allow soldiers to clamber into an apartment through its balcony.

All reports Al Jazeera has gathered indicate that Israeli soldiers were shooting people on sight in buildings they entered, as well as on the streets that the soldiers moved through.

To support the operation on land, the Israeli army reportedly moved armoured vehicles in from the other side of Salah al-Din Road at the line between Nuseirat and Bureij refugee camps.

At a certain point during the raid, more Israeli soldiers landed in a helicopter on Gaza’s shore, not far from the US-built pier.

Analysis would indicate that these were to provide backup, if needed and to evacuate the captives.

After the four individuals were retrieved, the convoy of disguised trucks and civilian vehicles headed out of the camp towards the sea, taking the Nuseirat road.

From there, the four were loaded onto the Israeli military helicopter and lifted off, leaving carnage behind as the bewildered people of Nuseirat tried to comprehend what had happened.

What did the people in Nuseirat do when this horror was over?

The wounded were taken to Shuhada al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir Balah, quickly overwhelming both medical and morgue facilities.

A widely shared video on social media shows the few remaining medics in the hospital standing in the middle of countless people lying on the floor, in agony, bleeding and screaming.

The medic in the middle of the shot is bereft. He can no longer move around because there are so many patients lying on every square inch of the tile floor, there is nowhere for him to put his feet.

It is not clear how he continued that day, how he triaged wounds, and how he made the decision of who to allocate the nearly nonexistent hospital resources to.

Within the hour, as staff frantically tried to treat the overwhelming number of wounded, the hospital received evacuation orders from Israel’s military. The hospital was in an area previously designated by Israel’s military as a safe zone.

But the operation, deemed by the Israelis and their international allies as a resounding success, not only killed numerous Palestinians, but a few hostages as well.

The Qassam Brigades posted a video to its Telegram channel on Sunday that showed three unidentified corpses, their faces covered, claiming they belonged to three captives, including one who was a US citizen, whom Israel killed during its raid.

Wait… Israeli soldiers snuck in how?

Israeli forces were “perfidiously hiding in an aid truck”, UN Special Rapporteur of the Occupied Palestinian Territories Francesca Albanese said. “This is ‘humanitarian camouflage’ at another level,” she wrote on X. Israel has denied the accusation.

How many people were killed or wounded?

At least 274 people died in Saturday’s massacre, including at least 64 children, and more than 700 were injured, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza.

Among those that Israel killed, according to Hamas’s armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, are three Israeli captives, one of whom has US citizenship.

Israeli army spokesperson Daniel Hagari claimed on Saturday that “dozens” of Palestinians had been killed in the attack, telling a briefing that he “knew of less than 100” casualties, but he “couldn’t say” how many were civilians.

What happened after the ‘rescue’ operation?

Argamani, Jan, Kozlov and Ziv were reunited with their families on Saturday after brief medical checks found that they were in good health.

As for Palestinians, hospitals struggled to cope with the flow of wounded or dead bodies.

Civil defence crews were still finding dead or wounded Palestinians under the rubble, as air strikes continued across the enclave.

Nuseirat, a refugee camp dating to the Nakba, is even more densely populated as Israel’s vicious war on Gaza kills hundreds every day and sends thousands fleeing, seeking safety in places like Nuseirat.

Around 120 hostages, including 40 or so who are dead, are believed to be still in the maze of tunnels under Gaza.

In February, a similar raid by Israeli forces killed 74 Palestinians to rescue two hostages.

How were so many people killed to rescue just four?

Witnesses describe a violent ambush, with indiscriminate shooting and air raids.

Camp resident Anas Alayyan said Israeli soldiers committed mass executions on the street.

“I went down to the street and found bodies everywhere,” he told Al Jazeera.

What has the Israeli reaction been?

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu said the attack showed “Israel does not surrender to terrorism”. He and his far-right allies in government are pushing for military solutions to free the remaining captives in Gaza.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant called it “one of the most extraordinary operations” he had seen in his nearly 50 years in the military.

Commenting on the horrific number of displaced Palestinians killed and injured, Israel’s Foreign Minister Israel Katz said: “Only Israel’s enemies complained about the casualties of Hamas terrorists and their accomplices.”

Before the attack, rumours circulated that Benny Gantz would soon resign from the war cabinet.

After the massacre, Netanyahu beseeched Gantz to stay on board, but it did not work.

Far-right figures in the Israeli government staunchly believe that military action, not negotiations or diplomacy, is the only way to deal with Gaza.

What about the international reaction?

Egypt and Jordan condemned the massacre.

EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said what happened in Nuseirat was a massacre.

Martin Griffiths, UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, tweeted that Israeli forces left “shredded bodies on the ground” in the “epicentre of the seismic trauma that civilians in Gaza continue to suffer”.

Oxfam International said: “The horrifying massacring by Israel of at least 274 displaced and starving Palestinians … was an unacceptable and unconscionable price to pay”.

Some ignored the staggering death toll. US President Joe Biden only mentioned his “welcome [of] the rescue”.

UK Foreign Minister David Cameron added: “My thoughts … with families of those still captive, and all the innocent lives affected by the conflict.” Sweden and Poland expressed similar sentiments.

Some tried to address both issues.

Borrell also tweeted: “We share the relief” of the capitves’ families and called for the remaining ones’ release.

Oxfam International welcomed “the news that four hostages are back with their families after an eight-month-long ordeal in captivity, under constant Israeli bombardment.”

Norway’s deputy foreign minister welcomed the news of the captives returning before decrying a “massacre of civilians in Gaza”.

Israel has killed at least 37,084 people and injured 84,494 in its war on Gaza since October 7.

The Hamas-led operation in Israel on October 7 killed 1,139 and took dozens captive in Gaza.