- Hamas gunmen enter Israel in unprecedented attack
- At least 100 Israelis reported dead, 740 wounded
- Hamas says it has taken many Israeli captives
- Israel says Hamas declares war, commits ‘grave mistake’
- Barrage of rockets launched into Israel from Gaza
JERUSALEM/GAZA, Oct 7 (Reuters) – Palestinian Islamist group Hamas took Israel by surprise on Saturday with the biggest attack for decades, a sudden assault by gunmen who crossed into Israeli villages, killed dozens of people and brought hostages back into the Gaza Strip.
Israel responded with massive air strikes deep inside the coastal enclave, killing scores and wounding hundreds of people and vowing unprecedented retaliation.
“Our enemy will pay a price the type of which it has never known,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “We are in a war and we will win it”.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said the assault that had begun in Gaza would spread to the West Bank and Jerusalem.
“This was the morning of defeat and humiliation upon our enemy, its soldiers and its settlers,” he said. “What happened reveals the greatness of our preparation. What happened today reveals the weakness of the enemy.”
In southern Israel near Gaza, bodies of Israeli civilians lay strewn across a highway in Sderot, surrounded by broken glass. A woman and a man were sprawled out dead across the front seats of a car. A military vehicle drove past the bodies of another woman and a man in a pool of blood behind another car.
Israel’s N12 News reported that at least 100 Israelis were killed. Israeli security forces said there were 21 active scenes of gunbattles with infiltrators, and its navy had killed dozens more Palestinians attempting to infiltrate by sea.
In Gaza, black smoke and orange flames billowed into the evening sky from a high rise tower hit by an Israeli retaliatory strike. Crowds of mourners carried the bodies of freshly killed militants through the streets, wrapped in green Hamas flags.
Gaza health officials said at least 198 Palestinians had been killed and more than 1,600 had been wounded, carried into crumbling and overcrowded hospitals with severe shortages of medical supplies and equipment.
‘DAY OF THE GREATEST BATTLE’
Hamas deputy chief Saleh al-Arouri told Al Jazeera that the group was holding a big number of Israeli captives, including senior officials. He said Hamas had enough captives to make Israel free all Palestinians in its jails.
The Israeli military confirmed Israelis were being held captive in Gaza and soldiers and officers had been killed. A military spokesman said Israel could mobilise up to hundreds of thousands of reservists and was also prepared for war on its northern front against Lebanon’s Hezbollah group.
Hamas, which advocates Israel’s destruction, said the attack was driven by what it said were Israel’s escalated attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank, Jerusalem and against Palestinians in Israeli prisons.
“This is the day of the greatest battle to end the last occupation on earth,” Hamas military commander Mohammad Deif said, announcing the start of the operation in a broadcast on Hamas media and calling on Palestinians everywhere to fight.
Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007, has since fought four wars against Israel. But the scenes of violence inside Israel itself were unlike anything seen since the suicide bombings of the Palestinian Intafada uprising two decades ago.
That the attack came as a surprise to Israel’s security forces makes it one of the worst intelligence failures in the country’s history, a shock in a nation proud of its intensive infiltration and monitoring of militant groups.
The militant Islamic Jihad group said it had joined the attacks and was also holding Israeli soldiers captive. Hamas footage on its Telegram account showed its fighters pulling Israeli soldiers out of a tank.
‘PLEASE SEND HELP’
Speaking to Israel N12 News by phone from Nir Oz, a kibbutz near Gaza, a woman identified as Dorin said militants had infiltrated her house and tried to open the bomb shelter where she was hiding.
“They just came in again, please send help,” she said. “There are a lot of homes harmed … My husband is holding the door closed … They are firing rounds of bullets.”
In Gaza, a narrow strip where 2.3 million Palestinians have lived under an Israeli blockade for 16 years, residents rushed to buy supplies in anticipation of days of war ahead. Some evacuated their homes and headed for shelters.
Scores of Palestinians were killed and hundreds wounded in clashes at the border into Israel, where fighters captured the crossing point and tore down fences. Some of those dead were civilians, among crowds that attempted to cross into Israel through the damaged gates.
“We are afraid,” Palestinian woman, Amal Abu Daqqa, told Reuters as she left her house in Khan Younis.
BIDEN OFFERS SUPPORT TO NETANYAHU
Western countries, led by the United States, denounced the Palestinian attack and pledged support for Israel.
“I made clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu that we stand ready to offer all appropriate means of support to the Government and people of Israel,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement issued after the two men spoke on a call.
“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,” Biden added.
Across the Middle East, there were demonstrations in support of Hamas, with Israeli and U.S. flags set on fire and marchers waving Palestinian flags in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
The Hamas attack was openly praised by Iran and by Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese allies.
U.N. Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland condemned the attacks on Israel, warning in a statement: “This is a dangerous precipice, and I appeal to all to pull back from the brink.”
Hamas media displayed videos of what it said were bodies of Israeli soldiers brought into Gaza by fighters, and Palestinian gunmen inside Israeli homes and driving through an Israeli town in jeeps.
BACKDROP OF SURGING VIOLENCE
The escalation comes against a backdrop of surging violence between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Israeli occupied West Bank, where a Palestinian authority exercises limited self-rule, opposed by Hamas that wants Israel destroyed.
Israel itself has been experiencing internal political upheaval, with the most right-wing government in its history attempting to overhaul the judiciary.
Meanwhile, Washington has been trying to strike a deal that would normalise ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, seen by Israelis as the biggest prize yet in their decades-long quest to be recognised by their Arab neighbours. Palestinians fear that any such deal could sell out their future dreams of an independent state.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry called for an “immediate cessation of violence between Israeli and the Palestinians”, the state news agency reported.
Additional reporting by Henriette Chacar and Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; writing by James Mackenzie, Tom Perry, Michael Georgy and Alex Richardson; Editing by William Mallard, Robert Birsel, Alex Richardson and Nick Macfie