The death toll in the Israel-Gaza war has surged close to 1,000 after the Palestinian militant group launched a massive surprise assault from Gaza.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu steeled the shocked and grieving nation for a “long and difficult” war ahead after Hamas fired a barrage of rockets at Israel on Saturday and sent in fighters who gunned down civilians and took at least 100 hostages.
The war has heightened Middle East tensions and killed more than 600 people on the Israeli side, which is the country’s worst losses since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war when it came under attack from a coalition led by Egypt and Syria.
“Israel was caught flat-footed by the unprecedented attack. I’ve heard multiple comparisons to 9/11, and many Israelis are struggling to understand how this could have happened, ” said Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative.
In Gaza, which was hammered by Israeli air strikes on 800 targets ahead of what many feared may be a looming ground invasion, officials reported at least 370 deaths, with thousands more wounded across the war zone.
Tens of thousands of Israeli forces were deployed to battle holdout Hamas fighters in the south, where the bodies of civilians had been found strewn on roads and in town centres.
“The enemy is still on the ground,” said military spokesman Daniel Hagari as a second night fell after the attack, adding that Israel was reinforcing its military strength near the Gaza Strip.
Gun battles raged as the Israeli army sought to secure desert regions near the coastal enclave, rescue Israeli hostages and evacuate all areas near Gaza.
“We’ll reach each and every community until we kill every terrorist in Israel,” vowed Hagari, a day after Hamas fighters launched their shock offensive and surged into Israel using vehicles, boats and even motorised paragliders.
100 Abducted to Gaza
There was widespread shock and dismay in Israel after at least 100 citizens were captured by Hamas and abducted into Gaza, with images circulating on social media of bloodied hostages, and distraught relatives pleading for the state to rescue them.
Yifat Zailer, 37, said she was horrified to see online video footage from Gaza that showed her female cousin and the woman’s children, aged nine months and three years.
“That’s the only confirmation we have,” she told AFP, her voice breaking with emotion, adding there was no information on her cousin’s husband and her elderly parents.
“After the army took control of the kibbutz, they weren’t at home. We assume they were kidnapped. We want to know what their condition is, we want them to return safely. They’re innocent civilians, ” she said.
Israel also came under attack from the north when Lebanon’s Hezbollah launched guided missiles and artillery shells Sunday “in solidarity” with the unprecedented Hamas offensive, without causing any casualties.
Israel responded with artillery strikes across the UN-patrolled border.
“We recommend Hezbollah not to come into this. If they come, we are ready,” said army spokesman Richard Hecht.
Israel was stunned when Hamas launched their multi-pronged offensive on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, raining down at least 3,000 rockets as fighters infiltrated towns and kibbutz communities and stormed an outdoor rave party.
Panicked Israeli residents phoned media outlets as they hid in their homes from militants going door to door and shooting civilians or dragging them away.
Two Thai nationals were among those killed, and other Asian nationals, many of whom work as farm labourers in the region, were believed to be among the hostages.
Global concern has mounted, with Western capitals condemning the attack by Hamas, which Washington and Brussels consider a terrorist group.
Israel’s foes have praised the assault, including Iran whose President Ebrahim Raisi voiced support when he spoke with Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders.
Anti-Israel protests have flared in Iraq, Pakistan and some other majority Muslim countries, while Germany and France were among nations stepping up security around Jewish temples and schools.
In the Egyptian city of Alexandria a police officer opened fire “at random” on Israeli tourists Sunday, killing two of them and their Egyptian guide before he was arrested.
Netanyahu — who leads a hard-right coalition government but has received pledges of support from political opponents during Israel’s national emergency — has vowed to turn Hamas hideouts “to rubble” and urged Palestinians there to flee.
“We are embarking on a long and difficult war that was forced on us by a murderous Hamas attack,” Netanyahu wrote on X, formerly Twitter, pledging no “respite”.
US President Joe Biden has voiced “rock solid and unwavering” support for Israel and warned “against any other party hostile to Israel seeking advantage in this situation”.
US Secretary of state Antony Blinken told CNN, “we have reports that several Americans were killed” and others missing and “we’re working to verify those reports”.
‘We will not give up’
Hamas has labeled its attack “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood” and called on “resistance fighters in the West Bank” and “Arab and Islamic nations” to join the battle.
Its attack came half a century after the outbreak of the 1973 conflict called the Yom Kippur war in Israel, sparking bitter recriminations on what was widely seen as an enormous intelligence failure.
“There was a very bad failure here,” said Sderot resident Yaakov Shoshani, 70. “The Yom Kippur War was small compared to it, and I was a soldier in the Yom Kippur War.”
He recalled the terror of the attack on their town near Gaza.
“I held a kitchen knife and a large screwdriver, and I told my wife that, if something happens, to make sure to read the Kaddish (prayer) over me, if you stay alive,” he said. “And so we stayed close to each other at home, shut everything and turned off the lights.”
Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh has predicted “victory” and vowed to press ahead with “the battle to liberate our land and our prisoners languishing in occupation prisons”.
Hamas said Saturday it had fired 5,000 rockets, while Israel reported some 3,000 incoming projectiles, as Hamas ground forces launched their assault on nearby Israeli communities.
Sderot resident Yitzhak, 67, said he now expected the army to “conquer Gaza house by house, clean the area there properly, and not leave Gaza until they get the very last rocket out of the ground.”
Israeli attacks have reduced several Gaza residential towers to rubble, and another strike completely destroyed a mosque in Gaza’s Khan Yunis.
Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, leading to Israel’s blockade of the impoverished enclave of 2.3 million people.
Israel and Hamas have fought several wars since, with the latest in May killing 34 Palestinians and one Israeli.
Many Gaza residents voiced defiance. “We will not give up, and we are here to stay,” said Mohammed Saq Allah, 23. “This is our land, and we will not abandon our land.”
Madukwe B. Nwabuisi is an accomplished journalist renown for his fearless reporting style and extensive expertise in the field. He is an investigative journalist, who has established himself as a kamikaze reporter.