Backed by a barrage of rockets, dozens of Hamas militants broke out of the blockaded Gaza Strip and into nearby Israeli towns, killing dozens and abducting others in an unprecedented surprise early morning attack during a major Jewish holiday 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 15 miles (24 kilometers) 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. Gunbattles continued well after nightfall, and militants held hostages in standoffs in two towns and occupied a police station in a third.
Israeli media, citing rescue service officials, 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.
The conflict threatened to escalate to an even deadlier stage with Israel’s vows of greater retaliation. Previous conflicts between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers brought widespread death and destruction in Gaza and days of rocket fire on Israeli towns.
The situation 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 in the West Bank and suffocating blockade of Gaza.
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’ capabilities and “take revenge for this black day. But he warned, “This war will take time. It will be difficult.”
“All the places that Hamas hides in, operates from, we will turn them into ruins,” he added. “Get out of there now,” he told Gaza residents, who have no way to leave the tiny, overcrowded Mediterranean territory of 2.3 million people.
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. Israeli forces fired a warning just before, and there were no reports of casualties.
Soon after, a Hamas rocket barrage into central Israel hit 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, neighbors 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.
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 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.