JERUSALEM • In an unprecedented early morning surprise attack during a major Jewish holiday on Saturday, Hamas militants fired thousands of rockets and sent dozens of fighters into Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip, killing dozens of people and stunning the country. Israel said it was currently at war with Hamas and was launching airstrikes in Gaza, vowing to inflict an “unprecedented toll.”
Hours after the raid began, Israeli troops were still fighting Hamas gunmen in 22 locations near the Gaza Strip, including in towns and other communities, army spokesman Daniel Hagari said – a chilling sign of the scale of the attack.
Israel’s emergency services said at least 70 people were killed and hundreds injured, marking the deadliest attack in Israel in years. Additionally, an unknown number of Israeli soldiers and civilians were arrested and taken to Gaza, an extremely sensitive issue for Israel. Hagari said militants were holding hostages in two towns, Beeri and Ofakim, located 15 miles (24 kilometers) from the Gaza border.
According to the Palestinian Health Ministry, at least 198 people were killed and at least 1,610 injured in the Israeli retaliation in the Gaza Strip. Airstrikes in the evening destroyed a 14-story residential tower that also houses Hamas offices in central Gaza City. Shortly beforehand, Israel issued a warning; the number of victims was initially not known.
The strength, sophistication and timing of the attack shocked the Israelis. Hamas fighters used explosives to breach the border fence surrounding the long-blockaded Mediterranean region, then crossed the coast on motorcycles, pickup trucks, paragliders and speedboats.
Bodies of dead Israeli civilians and Hamas fighters have been seen on the streets of Israeli cities. Photos obtained by Associated Press showed a kidnapped elderly Israeli woman surrounded by gunmen and taken back to Gaza in a golf cart, and another woman trapped between two fighters on a motorcycle. Images on social media appeared to show fighters parading what appeared to be captured Israeli military vehicles through the streets of the Gaza Strip and a dead Israeli soldier being dragged and trampled by a crowd of Palestinians.
The conflict threatened to develop dramatically further. Previous conflicts between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas ruler resulted in widespread death and destruction in Gaza and days of rocket fire on Israeli cities. The mix may be more volatile now, with Israel’s far-right government reeling from the security breach and Palestinians despairing over a never-ending occupation.
“We are at war,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised address and announced a mass mobilization of the army. “Not an ‘operation’, not a ’round’, but in war.”
“The enemy will pay an unprecedented price,” he added, promising that Israel would “return fire on a scale the enemy has never known.”
The shadowy leader of Hamas’s military wing, Mohammed Deif, said the attack was a response to the 16-year blockade of Gaza, Israeli raids on West Bank cities last year and violence in Al Aqsa – the disputed holy site for Jerusalem’s Jews Temple Mount – increasing settler attacks on Palestinians and settlement growth.
“Enough is enough,” Deif, who does not appear in public, said in the recorded message. He said the morning attack was just the beginning 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 senior security officials on Saturday, Netanyahu said the first priority would be to “cleanse” Israel’s south of invaders, followed by major retaliation in Gaza.
Hamas’ incursion into Simchat Torah, a normally joyful day when Jews complete the annual cycle of reading the Torah scroll, revived almost 50 years to the day of painful memories of the 1973 Middle East war, when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack Yom Kippur began, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, with the goal of retaking the territories occupied by Israel.
Comparisons to one of the most traumatic moments in Israeli history intensified criticism of Netanyahu and his far-right allies who have pushed for more aggressive action against threats from Gaza. Political commentators criticized the government for failing to anticipate what appeared to be a Hamas attack, whose level of planning and coordination was unprecedented.
Asked by reporters how Hamas managed to surprise the army, Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an Israeli army spokesman, replied: “That’s a good question.”
The kidnapping of Israeli civilians and soldiers was also a particularly sensitive issue for Israel. Israel has historically conducted highly one-sided exchanges to bring captured Israelis home.
Their number was initially unknown. Videos released by Hamas appeared to show that at least three Israelis were captured alive, and AP photos showed that at least three civilians were taken to Gaza, including the two women. Israeli television showed images of a young man, naked to his pants, being led on foot in a chokehold, and reported that the prisoners included elderly women with dementia and workers from Thailand and the Philippines.
The Israeli military confirmed that several Israelis had been captured. A senior Hamas official, Saleh Arouri, told Al-Jazeera TV that his group was holding “a large number” of Israeli prisoners, including high-ranking officials, adding that they would be used in a prisoner swap to release Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons . Neither side said how many.
The attack brought scenes of bloodshed in cities in southern Israel.
In the city of Sderot, the bodies of at least six people shot dead in a bus stop were laid out on stretchers in the street. The bags they had been carrying were on the curb and mismatched shoes were scattered on the sidewalk. Elsewhere, an Israeli woman knelt in the street and hugged a dead family member, whose body lay sprawled next to a pink motorcycle that lay on its side. The driver’s gloved hand and a foot in a racing boot stuck out from under the sheet.
In the kibbutz of Nahal Oz, just 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the Gaza Strip, frightened residents huddled indoors said they constantly heard gunfire echoing from the buildings as the gun battle continued.
“With missiles, we somehow feel safer knowing we have the Iron Dome (missile defense system) and our safe spaces. But knowing that terrorists are walking around in communities is a different kind of fear,” said Mirjam Reijnen, a 42-year-old volunteer firefighter and mother of three in Nahal Oz.
In a televised address, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned that Hamas had made “a grave mistake” and promised that “the State of Israel will win this war.”
US President Joe Biden condemned “this horrific attack against Israel by Hamas terrorists from Gaza.” He spoke to Netanyahu and said Israel had “the right to defend itself and its people.” according to a statement from the White House.
Saudi Arabia, which is negotiating with the US to normalize relations with Israel, released a statement calling on both sides to exercise restraint. The kingdom said it had repeatedly warned of “the risk of an explosion in the situation as a result of the ongoing occupation (and) the loss of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.”
Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia congratulated Hamas and praised the attack as a response to “Israeli crimes.” The group said its command in Lebanon was in contact with Hamas about the operation.
The attack comes at a time of historic division within Israel over Netanyahu’s proposal to reform the judiciary. Mass protests against the plan have sent hundreds of thousands of Israeli demonstrators onto the streets and prompted hundreds of military reservists to opt out of volunteer service – an uproar that has raised fears about the military’s readiness on the battlefield and concerns about its deterrence against its enemies.
It also comes at a time of growing tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, as the peace process has been effectively dead for years. Over the past year, Israel’s far-right government has pushed ahead with settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, violence by Israeli settlers has driven hundreds of Palestinians there and tensions have risen over a holy site in Jerusalem.
Israel has maintained a blockade over Gaza since Hamas took control of the territory in 2007. The bitter enemies have fought four wars since then.
The blockade, which restricts the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, has devastated the territory’s economy. Israel says the blockade is necessary to stop militant groups from building up their arsenals. Palestinians say the closure amounts to collective punishment.
Nearly 200 Palestinians were killed in Israeli military strikes in the West Bank, where there was heavy fighting. Israel says the raids targeted militants, but stone-throwing protesters and people not involved in the violence were also killed. Over 30 people were killed in Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets.
Tensions have also spread to Gaza, where Hamas-affiliated militants have staged violent demonstrations along the Israeli border in recent weeks. These demonstrations were stopped at the end of September after international mediation.
Adwan reported from Rafah in the Gaza Strip. Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem contributed to this report.