At least 250 Israelis killed and 1,500 wounded; 232 Palestinians killed and 1,700 wounded in Gaza
- More than 250 people in Israel have reportedly died, similar numbers of Palestinians have been killed in Gaza.
- The attacks launched by Hamas on Saturday involved a heavy barrage of rockets and militants crossing into Israeli territory.
- Hamas says attacks are retaliation for Israel's escalated aggression in West Bank and Jerusalem.
- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the country is 'at war.'
- The Israeli military says militants have captured some Israeli civilians and soldiers, and are holding them hostage.
- Israeli airstrikes intensified after nightfall, as Hamas fired more rockets into Israel.
Backed by a barrage of rockets, dozens of Hamas militants broke out of the blockaded Gaza Strip and into nearby Israeli towns, killing scores and abducting others in an unprecedented surprise early-morning attack during a major Jewish holiday on Saturday.
A stunned Israel launched airstrikes in Gaza, with its prime minister saying the country is now at war with Hamas and vowing to inflict an "unprecedented price."
In an assault of startling breadth, Hamas gunmen rolled into as many as 22 locations outside the Gaza Strip, including towns and other communities as far as 24 kilometres from the Gaza border. In some places, they roamed for hours, gunning down civilians and soldiers as Israel's military scrambled to muster a response.
Gun battles continued well after nightfall, and militants held hostages in standoffs in two towns. Militants occupied a police station in a third town, where Israeli forces struggled until Sunday morning to finally reclaim the building.
Before daybreak Sunday, militants fired more rockets from Gaza, hitting a hospital in the Israeli coastal town of Ashkelon.
The hospital sustained damage, said senior hospital official Tal Bergman. Video provided by Barzilai Medical Center showed a large hole punched into a wall and chunks of debris scattered on the ground of what appeared to an empty rooms and a hallway. There was no report of casualties.
The Israeli military also issued warnings in Arabic, early Sunday, telling Palestinian residents of communities near the Israel-Gaza border to leave their homes and move to areas deeper inside the tiny enclave.
Palestinian communities near the border were hit particularly hard in previous Israel-Hamas fighting on Gazan soil, both by artillery fire and at times by ground incursions.
Israel's national rescue service said at least 250 people were killed and 1,500 wounded, making it the deadliest attack in Israel in decades. At least 232 people in the Gaza Strip have been killed and at least 1,700 wounded in Israeli strikes, the Palestinian Health Ministry said.
Hamas fighters took an unknown number of civilians and soldiers captive into Gaza — a deeply sensitive issue for Israel — in harrowing scenes posted on social media videos.
Scope of fighting could widen
Hamas, which advocates Israel's destruction, said the attack was driven by what it said were Israel's escalated attacks on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem, as well as against Palestinians in Israeli prisons.
"This is the day of the greatest battle to end the last occupation on Earth," Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif said, announcing the start of the operation in a broadcast on Hamas media and calling on Palestinians everywhere to fight.
Gaza has been devastated by four wars and countless skirmishes between Hamas and Israel since the militants seized control of the strip in 2007. But the scenes of violence inside Israel itself were beyond anything seen there, even at the height of the Palestinian intifada uprisings of past decades.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said the assault that had begun in Gaza would spread to the West Bank and Jerusalem.
In a speech, Haniyeh highlighted threats to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque, the continuation of the blockade on Gaza and Israeli normalization with countries in the region. "How many times have we warned you that the Palestinian people have been living in refugee camps for 75 years, and you refuse to recognize the rights of our people?"
The conflict threatened to escalate to an even deadlier stage with Israel's vows of greater retaliation.
In a televised address Saturday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who earlier declared Israel to be at war, said the military will use all of its strength to destroy Hamas's capabilities but that the war will "take time."
"We will defeat them … and take revenge for this black day," he said.
Hamas operation designed to 'change the status quo,' expert says
Featured VideoHamas militants caught Israel off guard with a barrage of rocket attacks and surprise infiltration of its borders on Saturday. 'This is an attempt to shatter not just Israeli sense of complacency but also of the region and of the great powers like the United States and Europe,' says Khaled Elgindy, senior fellow and director of the Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs with the Middle East Institute.
After nightfall, Israeli airstrikes in Gaza intensified, flattening several residential buildings in giant explosions — including a 14-storey tower that held dozens of apartments, as well as Hamas offices in central Gaza City. Israeli forces fired a warning just before, and there were no reports of casualties.
Soon after, Hamas fired a barrage of rockets into central Israel, hitting four cities, including Tel Aviv and a nearby suburb, where two people were seriously injured. Throughout the day, Hamas fired more than 3,500 rockets, the Israeli military said.
In the southern Gaza city of Rafah, an Israeli airstrike late Saturday flattened a home, killing 12 members of the Abu Qouto family, neighbours said. Ten members of a family in the northern town of Jebalya were killed in another airstrike, relatives said. It was not known why the homes were targeted.
A shocking scale of attack
The strength, sophistication and timing of the Saturday morning attack shocked Israelis. Hamas fighters used explosives to break through the border fence enclosing Gaza, then crossed with motorcycles, pickup trucks, paragliders and speed boats on the coast without resistance from the military.
In some Israeli towns, a trail of civilians' bodies lay where they had encountered the advancing gunmen. On the road outside the town of Sderot, a bloodied woman slumped dead in the seat of her car.
At least nine people gunned down at a bus shelter in the town were laid out on stretchers on the street, their bags still on the curb nearby. One woman, screaming, embraced the body of a family member sprawled under a sheet next to a toppled motorcycle. As she was led away, she picked up the dead person's helmet from the ground nearby.
In amateur video, hundreds of terrified young people who had been dancing at a rave fled for their lives after Hamas militants entered the area and began firing at them. Israeli media said dozens of people were killed.
Associated Press photos showed an abducted elderly Israeli woman being brought into Gaza on a golf cart by Hamas gunmen and another woman squeezed between two fighters on a motorcycle. Images also showed fighters parading captured Israeli military vehicles through Gaza streets.
The leader of Hamas's military wing, Mohammed Deif, said the assault was in response to the 16-year blockade of Gaza and Israeli raids inside West Bank cities over the past year, as well as 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 he called on Palestinians from East Jerusalem to northern Israel to join the fight. "Today the people are regaining their revolution."
Concern for Israeli captives
Asked by reporters how Hamas had managed to catch the army off guard, Lt.-Col. Richard Hecht, an Israeli army spokesperson, replied, "That's a good question."
The abduction of Israeli civilians and soldiers also raised a particularly thorny issue for Israel. The country has a history of making heavily lopsided exchanges in order to bring captive Israelis home.
Hamas's military wing claimed it was holding dozens of Israeli soldiers captive in "safe places" and tunnels in the Gaza Strip. 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.
An unknown number of civilians were also taken. AP journalists saw four taken from the kibbutz of Kfar Azza, including two women. In Gaza, a black jeep pulled to a stop and, when the rear door opened, a young Israeli woman stumbled out, bleeding from the head and with her hands tied behind her back. A man waving a gun in the air grabbed her by the hair and pushed her into the vehicle's back seat. Israeli TV reported that workers from Thailand and the Philippines were also among the captives.
A Gaza ground assault to come?
Earlier in the day, Netanyahu vowed that Hamas "will pay an unprecedented price."
A major question now is whether Israel will launch a ground assault into Gaza — a move that in the past has brought intensified casualties.
Israel's military was bringing four divisions of troops as well as tanks to the Gaza border, joining 31 battalions already in the area, an army spokesperson said.
In Gaza, much of the population was thrown into darkness after nightfall, as electrical supplies from Israel were cut off.
Hamas said it had planned for a potentially long fight.
"We are prepared for all options, including all-out war," the deputy head of the Hamas political bureau, Saleh al-Arouri, told Al-Jazeera TV. "We are ready to do whatever is necessary for the dignity and freedom of our people."
U.S. President Joe Biden condemned "this appalling assault against Israel." He spoke with Netanyahu and said Israel "has a right to defend itself and its people," according to a White House statement.
Saudi Arabia, which has been in talks with the U.S. about normalizing relations with Israel, released a statement calling on both sides to exercise restraint. The kingdom said it had repeatedly warned about "the dangers of the situation exploding as a result of the continued occupation [and] the Palestinian people being deprived of their legitimate rights."
With files from Reuters
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