Israel was struck by a surprise attack by Hamas early Saturday morning in one of the most serious escalations in years between Israel and the Islamist militant group. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared the country was “at war.”
Israel launched retaliatory air strikes on targets in Gaza.
The massive assault by Iran-backed Hamas combined a barrage of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel and dozens of heavily armed gunmen attacking the country’s south from Gaza. It came a day after Israel marked the 50th anniversary of the surprise invasion on Yom Kippur in 1973.
At least 250 people were killed and 1,100 wounded, making it the deadliest attack in Israel in decades. Nearly 200 people in the Gaza Strip have been killed and at least 1,610 wounded in Israeli retaliatory strikes, the Palestinian Health Ministry said. The death toll was expected to rise.
“We are at war, and we will win,” Netanyahu said in a message to Israelis. “The enemy will pay an unprecedented price.”
The Israel Defense Forces carried out retaliatory strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza. “The IDF is initiating a large-scale operation to defend Israeli civilians against the combined attack launched against Israel by Hamas this morning,” the IDF said in a statement.
IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari told reporters that more than 2,200 rockets have been fired into Israel Saturday morning, Israeli media reported. Hagari said the Hamas militants infiltrated from land, sea and air.
Iran welcomed the Hamas attack with Yahya Rahim Safavi, an adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader, praising the assault as “commendable.” “We will stand alongside the Palestinian freedom fighters,” he told Iranian state media.
Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned that Hamas “made a grave mistake,” the Associated Press reported. He spoke following a security cabinet meeting at the Israeli military headquarters in Tel Aviv Saturday.
‘Operation Al-Aqsa Storm’
Pictures and videos on social media suggest that several civilians may have been injured or killed in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, at the border with the Gaza Strip. Those images appear to show uniformed Palestinian gunmen opening fire on civilians and civilian vehicles on the streets.
Amid reports of widespread infiltration of Hamas fighters, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced he had given the green light for army reservists to be called up for active service. The country’s defense forces are heavily reliant on 465,000 eligible part-time soldiers, and the number called up will depend on how the situation unfolds, Gallant said.
Mohammed Deif, the de facto leader of the Gaza headquartered Hamas group, issued a recorded message prior to the attacks, declaring the start of “Operation Al-Aqsa Storm” — a reference to the symbolic mosque that stands on Temple Mount in East Jerusalem. “Enough is enough,” he said, calling on Palestinians to take up arms against Israel.
Seth Franzman, a regional political analyst in Jerusalem, told POLITICO that he and his family had been “woken up by sirens and rocket fire at around 8 in the morning.” He added: “We could see the explosions from our balcony. My family’s in the shelter now because, even though Israel has advanced air defenses, things can fall out of the sky when they’re intercepted.”
“This is a pretty major surprise attack,” said Franzman, who also works as an editor for The Jerusalem Post, “because there wasn’t the usual back and forth drumbeat between Israel and Hamas that takes place before escalations. This is totally different.”
U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Netanyahu Saturday about the “horrific” Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians, offering “all appropriate means of support” to the American ally.
“Terrorism is never justified. Israel has a right to defend itself and its people,” Biden said in a statement. “The United States warns against any other party hostile to Israel seeking advantage in this situation. My administration’s support for Israel’s security is rock solid and unwavering.”
The military wing of Hamas claimed it was holding dozens of Israeli soldiers captive following the incursion, the AP reported. The Israeli military confirmed that a number of Israelis were abducted but would not give a figure. If true, the claim could set the stage for complicated negotiations on a swap with Israel, which is holding thousands of Palestinians in its prisons.
The conflict threatened to escalate to an even deadlier stage with Israel’s vows of greater retaliation. The situation is potentially more volatile than in the past, with Israel’s far-right government stung by the security breach.
After nightfall, Israeli airstrikes in Gaza intensified, flattening several residential buildings in giant explosions, including a 14-story tower that held dozens of apartments as well as Hamas offices in central Gaza City, the Associated Press reported.
Saudi Arabia called for an “immediate halt to the escalation of conflict between Palestinians and Israel.” Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry said it “is closely following developments in the unprecedented situation between a number of Palestinian factions and the Israeli occupation forces.”
“We recall our repeated warnings of the dangers of the situation exploding as a result of the continued occupation,” the ministry said in a statement. Saudi Arabia reiterated its call for a credible peace process that would lead to a two-state solution.
Turkey and Egypt called for “restraint” on both sides of the conflict. Egypt’s foreign minister warned of “grave consequences” from an escalation in tensions between Israel and the Palestinians.
The EU condemned the Hamas assault. “I unequivocally condemn the attack carried out by Hamas terrorists against Israel,” European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen said in a statement. “It is terrorism in its most despicable form.”
“Israel has the right to defend itself against such heinous attacks,” she said.
The United Nations Security Council said it would hold a meeting Sunday afternoon to discuss the conflict.