Oct 8 (AP) – 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 on Saturday, October 7, 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 70 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 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. 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 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.
“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.