JERUSALEM (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 Saturday, 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 100 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 15 miles (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.
The Hamas incursion on Simchat Torah, a normally joyous day when Jews complete the annual cycle of reading the Torah scroll, revived painful memories of the 1973 Mideast war practically 50 years to the day, in which Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, aiming to take back Israeli-occupied territories.
Comparisons to one of the most traumatic moments in Israeli history sharpened criticism of Netanyahu and his far-right allies, who had campaigned on more aggressive action against threats from Gaza. Political commentators lambasted the government over its failure to anticipate what appeared to be a Hamas attack unseen in its level of planning and coordination.
Asked by reporters how Hamas had managed to catch the army off guard, Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an Israeli army spokesman, replied, “That’s a good question.”
The abduction of Israeli civilians and soldiers also raised a particularly thorny issue for Israel. Israel has a history of making heavily lopsided exchanges in order to bring captive Israelis home.
Their number was not immediately known. Videos released by Hamas appeared to show at least three Israelis captured alive, and AP photos showed at least three civilians brought in Gaza, including the two women. Israeli television showed images of a young man stripped down to his pants being led on foot in a chokehold and reported that elderly women with dementia as well as workers from Thailand and the Philippines were among the captives.
The Israeli military confirmed that a number of Israelis had been taken captive. A top Hamas official, Saleh Arouri, told Al-Jazeera TV that his group is holding “a large number” of Israeli prisoners including senior officers adding that they will be used in a prisoner exchange to free Palestinian detainees in Israeli jails. Neither side said how many.
The assault brought scenes of bloodshed into towns of southern Israel.
In the town of Sderot, the bodies of at least six people gunned down at a bus shelter were laid out on stretchers on the street. The bags they had been carrying sat at the curb and unmatched shoes were scattered on the sidewalk. Elsewhere, an Israeli woman knelt in the street and embraced a dead family member whose body was stretched out next to a pink motorcycle that lay on its side. The rider’s hand with a glove and a foot in a racing boot extended out from under the sheet.
In the kibbutz of Nahal Oz, just 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the Gaza Strip, terrified residents who were huddled indoors said they could hear constant gunfire echoing off the buildings as firefights continued.
“With rockets we somehow feel safer, knowing that we have the Iron Dome (missile defense system) and our safe rooms. But knowing that terrorists are walking around communities is a different kind of fear,” said Mirjam Reijnen, a 42-year-old volunteer firefighter and mother of three in Nahal Oz.
In a televised address, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned that Hamas had made “a grave mistake” and promised that “the state of Israel will win this war.”
U.S. President Joe Biden condemned “this appalling assault against Israel by Hamas terrorists from Gaza.” 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.”
Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group congratulated Hamas, praising the attack as a response to “Israeli crimes.” The group said its command in Lebanon was in contact with Hamas about the operation.
The attack comes at a time of historic division within Israel over Netanyahu’s proposal to overhaul the judiciary. Mass protests over the plan have sent hundreds of thousands of Israeli demonstrators into the streets and prompted hundreds of military reservists to avoid volunteer duty — turmoil that has raised fears over the military’s battlefield readiness and raised concerns about its deterrence over its enemies.
It also comes at a time of mounting tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, with the peace process effectively dead for years. Over the past year Israel’s far-right government has ramped up settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, Israeli settler violence has displaced hundreds of Palestinians there, and tensions have flared around a flashpoint Jerusalem holy site.
Israel has maintained a blockade over Gaza since Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007. The bitter enemies have fought four wars since then.
The blockade, which restricts the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, has devastated the territory’s economy. Israel says the blockade is needed to keep militant groups from building up their arsenals. The Palestinians say the closure amounts to collective punishment.
Nearly 200 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli military raids in the West Bank, which has seen heavy fighting. Israel says the raids are aimed at militants, but stone-throwing protesters and people uninvolved in the violence have also been killed. Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets have killed over 30 people.
The tensions have also spread to Gaza, where Hamas-linked activists held violent demonstrations along the Israeli border in recent weeks. Those demonstrations were halted in late September after international mediation.
Adwan reported from Rafah, Gaza Strip. Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem contributed to this report.