Hamas militants fired thousands of rockets and sent dozens of fighters into Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip in an unprecedented surprise early morning attack during a major Jewish holiday Saturday, killing dozens and stunning the country. Israel said it is now at war with Hamas and launched airstrikes in Gaza, vowing to inflict an “unprecedented price.” Hours after the incursion began, Israeli troops were still fighting Hamas gunmen in 22 locations near the Gaza Strip, including towns and other communities, army spokesman Daniel Hagari said — a startling sign of the breadth of the assault.
Israel’s national rescue service said at least 100 people were killed and hundreds wounded, making it the deadliest attack in Israel in years. An unknown number of Israeli soldiers and civilians were also seized and taken into Gaza, an enormously sensitive issue for Israel. Hagari said militants were holding hostages in standoffs in two towns, Beeri and Ofakim, which is 15 miles (24 kilometers) from the Gaza border.
At least 198 people in the Gaza Strip have been killed and at least 1,610 wounded in Israel’s retaliation, the Palestinian Health Ministry said. Airstrikes in the evening flattened a 14-story residential tower that also holds Hamas offices in central Gaza City. The Israeli fired a warning just before, and the number of casualties was not immediately known.
The strength, sophistication and timing of the attack shocked Israelis. Hamas fighters used explosives to break through the border fence enclosing the long-blockaded Mediterranean territory, then crossed with motorcycles, pickup trucks, paragliders and speed boats on the coast.
Bodies of dead Israeli civilians and Hamas militants were seen on streets of Israeli towns.
Associated Press photos showed an abducted elderly Israeli woman surrounded by gunmen being brought back into Gaza on a golf cart and another woman squeezed between two fighters on a motorcycle. Images on social media appeared to show fighters parading what seemed to be captured Israeli military vehicles through Gaza streets and a dead Israeli soldier being dragged and trampled by a crowd of Palestinians.
The conflict threatened to spiral dramatically further. Previous conflicts between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas ruler brought widespread death and destruction in Gaza and days of rocket fire on Israeli towns. The mix is potentially more volatile now, with Israel’s far-right government stung by the security breach and with Palestinians in despair over a never-ending occupation. According to an NYT report, the violence also poses a threat to an effort by the Biden administration to help broker a formal diplomatic relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel after a series of cooperative steps by officials from both countries in recent weeks.
“We are at war,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised address, declaring a mass army mobilization. “Not an ‘operation,’ not a ‘round,’ but at war.” “The enemy will pay an unprecedented price,” he added, promising that Israel would “return fire of a magnitude that the enemy has not known.”
The shadowy leader of Hamas’ military wing, Mohammed Deif, said the assault was in response to the 16-year blockade of Gaza, Israeli raids inside West Bank cities over the past year, violence at Al Aqsa — the disputed Jerusalem holy site sacred to Jews as the Temple Mount — increasing attacks by settlers on Palestinians and growth of settlements.
“Enough is enough,” Deif, who does not appear in public, said in the recorded message. He said the morning attack was only the start of what he called “Operation Al-Aqsa Storm” and called on Palestinians from east Jerusalem to northern Israel to join the fight. “Today the people are regaining their revolution.”
At a meeting of top security officials Saturday, Netanyahu said the first priority was to “cleanse” southern Israel of infiltrators, followed by a greater retaliation in Gaza.
The Hamas incursion on Simchat Torah, a normally joyous day when Jews complete the annual cycle of reading the Torah scroll, revived painful memories of the 1973 Mideast war practically 50 years to the day, in which Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, aiming to take back Israeli-occupied territories.
Comparisons to one of the most traumatic moments in Israeli history sharpened criticism of Netanyahu and his far-right allies, who had campaigned on more aggressive action against threats from Gaza. Political commentators lambasted the government over its failure to anticipate what appeared to be a Hamas attack unseen in its level of planning and coordination.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group congratulated Hamas, praising the attack as a response to “Israeli crimes”.
An adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Yahya Rahim Safavi, said: “We will stand by the Palestinian fighters until the liberation of Palestine and Jerusalem.”
Asked by reporters how Hamas had managed to catch the army off guard, Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an Israeli army spokesman, replied, “That’s a good question.” Associated Press