Israel ‘at war’ after unprecedented assault by Hamas militants from Gaza

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Saturday that “we are at war” after Hamas militants from Gaza launched an unprecedented, multipronged attack across central and southern Israel, killing dozens of Israelis and wounding hundreds more.

The assault began early Saturday when Hamas launched thousands of rockets toward Israeli cities and sent militants into Israeli territory overland and by using paragliders and speedboats. Gunmen seized control of pockets of southern Israel, taking hostages and leaving bodies of civilians in the streets. About 70 Israelis have been killed, according to the country’s emergency services.

The Israeli air force retaliated with airstrikes throughout the Gaza Strip. At least 198 people were killed and more than 1,600 wounded in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.

Israel ordered residents of towns along the Gaza border to remain inside, as gun battles raged through the day. There were active hostage situations in the southern communities of Kibbutz Beeri and Ofakim, according to the Israeli military, which said militants were holding civilians in their homes and at a community dining hall.

Earlier, Palestinian militants claimed to have taken dozens of Israelis captive — including senior military officers, Hamas’s deputy chief Saleh al-Arouri told Al Jazeera. He indicated that Hamas wants to trade its hostages for militants imprisoned in Israel.

Israeli social media and radio stations were flooded with desperate pleas from families looking for loved ones.

One man, Yoni Asher, told a radio station that his wife and two young daughters, ages 3 and 5, had driven south to his mother-in-law’s home for the holiday weekend. All four of them were missing, and the last location signal from the phone of his wife, Doron, came from Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip.

Gillian Daniel, 75, was sheltering from rocket fire with her family in an apartment building’s safe room in the southern city of Ashkelon. “It’s very, very scary,” she said in a phone interview. “Israel needs to treat this as a war and go in and attack and not worry about what the rest of the world says. We have to look out for ourselves.”

A photograph released by Hamas showed Palestinians bulldozing the “smart fence” that Israeli forces installed in 2021 to counter tunnels. Other photos showed Palestinians climbing atop disabled Israeli military vehicles and posing for selfies.

“We are at war, not in an operation, nor in rounds, but at war,” Netanyahu said in a video statement Saturday. “And we will win it.”

Netanyahu convened leaders of Israel’s security services and ordered them to “clear out the communities that have been infiltrated by terrorists.” He also called for an “extensive mobilization” of reservists, pledging, “The enemy will pay an unprecedented price.”

Netanyahu’s rhetoric does not represent a formal declaration of war, which must be approved by the Israeli cabinet. Such a declaration would authorize a far-reaching military response that could include a land invasion of Gaza and efforts to topple Hamas, according to Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel.

“The main effort is to eliminate all the terrorists on the security fence, all those who infiltrated Israel and are trying to return to the Gaza Strip,” Daniel Hagari, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, told reporters. “First of all, we will strike from the air, and then also with heavy ground means.”

Saturday’s attack represented a bloody interruption of the Jewish sabbath and the holiday of Simhat Torah — the last in a series of Jewish holidays, during which Israel had placed restrictions on Palestinian exits from Gaza. And it came just a day after the 50th anniversary of the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, one of the darkest chapters of Israeli history, when a coalition of Arab states mounted a surprise assault against Israeli-held territory in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights.

It marked a stunning intelligence failure on the part of Israel, which has imposed a crippling economic blockade on Gaza since Hamas militants seized power there in 2007. Hamas and Israel have fought four wars in the years since. Israel controls nearly all crossings into the densely populated enclave and uses drones to carry out regular aerial surveillance.

“This is a total failure of intelligence and a failure of operational readiness, so there will have to be an accounting,” Freilich said, calling Hamas’s assault “unprecedented in Israeli history.”

It comes at a time of mounting domestic turmoil for Israel. There have been months of massive demonstrations against the far-right government’s plans to restrict the power of the Supreme Court. Groups of reserve soldiers who oppose the judicial reform have skipped training sessions in protest. But in the wake of attacks Saturday, a major group of protesting reservists said its members would join the fight.

“Everybody who is going to be called is coming,” said Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces.

Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas’s political office, praised Gaza fighters’ efforts as “heroic” and “historic” in a statement. He said the attack was meant to avenge “criminal Zionist aggression” against al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

He called on Muslims and “all the free people of the world” to stand in “defense of al-Aqsa … to do whatever they can, for this is not the time to wait and watch.”

In a rare message, Mohammed Deif, head of Hamas’s military wing, proclaimed, “Today the people are regaining their revolution.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who leads the rival Palestinian governing body in the West Bank, said Saturday he chaired an “emergency leadership meeting” of security officials, adding that Palestinians have a right “to defend themselves against the terrorism of settlers and occupation forces.”

Through the loudspeakers of mosques in the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem, religious leaders encouraged fellow Palestinians to take up arms.

“They only understand the language of the gun. Fight them!” one could be heard yelling in reference to Israelis, in a video posted by Quds News Network on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter. The sound of gunshots could be heard in the background.

Palestinians poured into the streets of cities across the West Bank on Saturday to celebrate Hamas’s attack, as local militant groups passed out candy and chanted, “God is Great!,” according to Palestinian news agencies.

In Gaza, celebrations were dampened by fears among residents, who are used to heavy Israeli airstrikes after militant attacks.

“I woke up terrified when I heard the sound of explosions, and since then I have been unable to sleep or do anything at home due to the fear and terror of what has happened and what may happen,” said Faten Abu Laban, 30. “All of my family members and I are gathered in one room now, watching the news on TV and trying not to dwell on the worst that may be coming for Gaza.”

Gazans rushed to bakeries and grocery stores to stock up on supplies. By the afternoon, internet service in some parts of Gaza was down, making it difficult to reach residents.

The outbreak of violence quickly sparked fears of a broader regional conflagration. In a statement, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah said it was “closely following” Saturday’s events and was “in direct contact with the leadership of the Palestinian resistance internally and abroad.”

President Biden called Netanyahu on Saturday to express his condolences over the “appalling assault,” according to a statement from the White House.

“Terrorism is never justified,” the statement said. “Israel has a right to defend itself and its people. The United States warns against any other party hostile to Israel seeking advantage in this situation.”

Egypt, which has played a key role in brokering cease-fires to end previous bouts of fighting, called for restraint, warning of the dangers of escalation. Egypt shares a border with Israel and Gaza, and President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi’s office said he ordered an “intensification of communications to contain the situation.”

Saudi Arabia blamed Israel, arguing that its actions triggered the coordinated attack. The Saudi statement also criticized “provocations” toward Islamic holy sites, including al-Aqsa Mosque.

The Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Israel “alone” is responsible for the escalation because of its “continued violations of the rights of the Palestinian people, the latest of which was the repeated storming of the holy Aqsa Mosque under the protection of the Israeli police.”

The flare-up of violence is likely to complicate or derail efforts by the United States to broker ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, Freilich said.

The United Nations’ special coordinator for the Middle East peace process said he was “deeply concerned for the well-being of all civilians” amid the violence.

“This is a dangerous precipice and I appeal to all to pull back from the brink,” Tor Wennesland said in a statement.

Parker reported from Alexandria, Egypt; Rubin from Brussels; and Balousha from Gaza City. Sufian Taha in Jerusalem, Miriam Berger, Toluse Olorunnipa, Nick Parker and Kim Bellware in Washington, Victoria Bisset and Adela Suliman in London, Jintak Han in Seoul and Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report.

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