Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that the country was “at war” on Saturday, after Palestinian militants in Gaza fired a deadly barrage of rockets and sent gunmen into Israeli territory in a major escalation of the long running conflict between the two sides.
The Israeli military said about 2,200 rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip into Israel, while armed terror groups infiltrated into Israel by land, sea and air in paragliders. Multiple explosions were heard over Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and in southern Israel – some blasts likely the interceptions of incoming rockets – while air raids sent Israelis pouring into underground shelters.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said Hamas had taken “hostages and prisoners of war” but did not give a figure. At least 200 Israelis had been killed and 1,452 have been wounded, according to Israel’s emergency rescue service and health ministry.
Israel responded by launching strikes on what it called Hamas targets in Gaza. The Palestine Tower, a high-rise building which hosts residential apartments and media offices in Gaza City, was hit by an explosion and collapsed, video showed.
The Palestinian health ministry said that 232 Palestinians had been killed and 1,697 injured, but did not say where the deaths occurred or whether the toll included Hamas militants or civilians in Gaza.
Netanyahu has said operations are already under way to “clear communities that have been infiltrated by terrorists” and that he had also issued a call-up of reservists.
He also vowed retribution against Hamas, the Palestinian militant movement that runs Gaza, in a televised speech: “What happened today has never been seen in Israel, we will take mighty vengeance for this black day,” Netanyahu said.
“I tell Hamas, you are responsible for the wellbeing of captives, Israel will settle the score with anyone who harms them,” Netanyahu said, adding that Israel would turn Hamas-associated locations “into islands of ruins.”
“Residents of Gaza: Leave now because we will operate forcefully everywhere,” he said.
A fresh round of rockets was fired by Gaza militants on Saturday evening, making direct hits on multiple locations inside Israel, including in Tel Aviv, according to Israeli authorities.
In a Telegram post, the armed wing of Hamas — the militant group designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union and Israel — said it had fired an additional 150 rockets in response to the bombing of the residential tower.
‘The entire system failed’
The surprise assault on Saturday was unprecedented in recent history in its scale and scope, falling on the 50th anniversary of the 1973 War in which Arab states blitzed Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
IDF spokesman Lt Col Richard Hecht said in a briefing that Israeli forces “are fighting on the ground as we speak,” listing multiple locations where fighting was taking place, including several villages, army bases and border crossings.
Hecht declined to answer repeated questions from journalists about whether the IDF had missed intelligence that the attack was coming.
A former IDF international spokesperson, Jonathan Conricus, described the massive surprise attack as a “Pearl Harbor type of moment” for the country.
“The entire system failed. It’s not just one component. It’s the entire defense architecture that evidently failed to provide the necessary defense for Israeli civilians,” he said.
Dubbing the operation “Al-Aqsa Storm,” Hamas military commander Muhammad Al-Deif said in a recorded message that the group had “targeted the enemy positions, airports and military positions with 5,000 rockets” and that the assault on Israel was a response to attacks on women, the desecration of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and the ongoing siege of Gaza.
“If you have a gun, get it out. This is the time to use it – get out with trucks, cars, axes, today the best and most honorable history starts,” Al-Deif added.
The attacks by Hamas follow one of the deadliest periods in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in nearly two decades. The violence has been driven by frequent Israeli military raids in Palestinian towns and cities, which Israel has said are a necessary response to a rising number of attacks by Palestinian militants on Israelis.
They also come at a moment of deep division in Israel, months after the government pushed through a contentious plan to reduce the power of the country’s courts, sparking a social and political crisis. The move this summer also struck a nerve with the military, prompting many reservists – the backbone of Israel’s army – to warn they would not come if called up, to protest the changes to the judicial system. An IDF spokesperson said Saturday that he did not know of any reservists refusing to be called up in the face of the latest attacks.
Israel responds to air, sea and ground assault
It is rare for Palestinian militants to be able to make it into Israel from Gaza which is sealed off and heavily watched by Israel’s military.
As the day unfolded, the IDF said it was fighting in 22 locations, later adding that its operations has seen “ground and aerial forces thwarted hundreds of terrorists in the area surrounding the Gaza Strip and southern Israel.”
Another IDF spokesman, Brigadier General Daniel Hagari, said there were hostage situations in two locations – Ofakim and Beeri.
It is not clear how many people Hamas has taken captive, however video verified by CNN showed the moment some were seized.
In one of the videos, geolocated by CNN to the neighborhood of Shejaiya in Gaza, a barefoot woman is pulled from the trunk of a Jeep by a gunman and then forced into the backseat of the car. Her face is bleeding, and her wrists appear to be cable-tied behind her back. The jeep also appears to have an Israel Defense Forces license plate, suggesting it may have been stolen and brought into Gaza.
A second video, which appears to show Hamas militants taking multiple Israelis captive, was geolocated by CNN to Be’eri in southern Israel, which is a village close to Gaza.
Residents of Kibbutz Beeri and Kibbutz Nir Oz, two Israeli communities, told the country’s Channel 12 television station that assailants from Gaza were trying to break into their homes. They have repeatedly pleaded on television for assistance from the IDF.
One resident of Kibbutz Nir Oz told the broadcaster over the phone that his family, including two children ages 7 and 9, have barricaded themselves in a safe room while militants fired at the door.
Channel 12 also reported that infiltrators had taken hostages in Netiv HaAsara. Israeli authorities did not immediately confirm any details about those reports.
The IDF warned Israelis who live near Gaza to stay in their homes or head to shelters.
Zaki Heller, spokesperson for Israel’s Magen David Adom, urged people to donate blood and said a special blood donation drive is being organized in Tel Aviv for Saturday morning “due to an urgent need.”
Social media footage obtained by CNN showed the aftermath of a rocket strike in Ashkelon, a coastal city in southern Israel, where multiple cars could be seen burning next to an apartment complex, a thick plume of black smoke billowing into the air.
Gaza is one of the most densely packed places in the world, an isolated coastal enclave of almost 2 million people crammed into 140 square miles.
Governed by Hamas, the territory is largely cut off from the rest of the world by an Israeli blockade of Gaza’s land, air and sea dating back to 2007. Egypt controls Gaza’s southern border crossing, Rafah.
Israel has placed heavy restrictions on the freedom of civilian movement and controls the importation of basic goods into the narrow coastal strip.
Video shared by Hamas’ armed wing on Saturday showed a group of fighters storming Erez Crossing post, the main border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Israel.
The video, which is heavily edited, showed several dead bodies on the ground with sounds of gunfire. It also shows what appears to be two men being dragged away with hands on heads by the fighters.
Hamas also claimed it captured Israeli vehicles from southern Israeli cities near the Gaza border. The IDF declined to comment when asked by CNN.
The world reacts
Amid the unprecedented assault, US President Joe Biden said his administration’s support of Israel’s security is “rock solid and unwavering.”
“You know, when I spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu this morning, I told him the United States stands with the people of Israel in the face of these terrorists assaults. Israel has the right to defend itself and its people full stop,” he said at the White House.
Stephanie Hallett, the top American diplomat in Israel, wrote on social media: “I condemn the indiscriminate rocket fire by Hamas terrorists against Israeli civilians. I am in contact with Israeli officials, and fully support Israel’s right to defend itself from such terrorist attacks.”
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for the parties involved to “act with restraint in light of the events in Israel this morning and to stay away from impulsive steps that will escalate tensions,” while Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said he is in “intensive” communication with international officials to stop the ongoing escalation.
Many European leaders have taken to social media to denounce the violence.
European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen said on X, formerly known as Twitter, that she “unequivocally” condemned the violence. “It is terrorism in its most despicable form. Israel has the right to defend itself against such heinous attacks.”
French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his “full solidarity with the victims,” while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that “Germany condemns these Hamas attacks and stands by Israel.”