Hundreds of Israelis are wounded and more than 100 are dead after Hamas launched a surprise attack early Saturday, sending thousands of rockets into Israel and infiltrating border towns with militants.
Street fighting was underway in towns bordering on Gaza and Israeli officials confirmed that Hamas militants had taken hostages, in a dramatic surge of violence that began while Israelis were celebrating the Simchat Torah holiday and Shabbat.
At least 100 Israelis have been killed, officials confirmed. Officials cautioned that the number was expected to rise, and reports from across the country suggested a steep toll.
Dozens were missing after an all-night “Nature Party” in the desert near Gaza was attacked, while Israelis in the south, speaking to Israeli media, described a chaotic response as militants remained in their communities for hours without apparent intervention by the military.
“We are at war,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in response to the attack, later warning that a “prolonged and powerful campaign” would be required to win. Military reservists had been called up and the Israel Defense Forces began striking in Gaza, the Palestinian territory that Hamas controls.
“Hamas opened the gates of hell on the Gaza Strip, Hamas made the decision and Hamas will bear the responsibility and pay the price,” said Ghassan Alian, the IDF’s liaison to the Palestinians.
Israel’s military engagement over the last year with the Palestinians has focused largely on the West Bank, where militant activity has fueled terrorist attacks on Israelis.
The attack came on the 50th anniversary of the first day of the Yom Kippur War, when multiple Arab countries struck Israel in a coordinated attack. Thousands of Israeli soldiers were killed in that conflict, which resulted in a hard-fought Israeli victory and left the country deeply traumatized.
It also came as a political crisis within Israel left Netanyahu and his allies exposed to criticism that they were inadequately focused on potential threats against Israel. Israel’s leading opposition parties issued a statement urging unity in response to the attack. An IDF official declined to comment to The New York Times about how the country had been taken by surprise.
The attack also comes as Israel is seeking to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia. Hezbollah, the militant group based in Lebanon that is a proxy for Iran, praised the attack and said it should be seen as a message to Arab countries considering ties with Israel, which four countries have struck in the last three years. Saudi officials reportedly were pressing for gains for the Palestinians in their negotiations.
According to siren alerts, most rockets landed in the communities in Israel’s south near Gaza, but there were some sirens in the center of the country and as far east as Jerusalem. Photographs showed that rockets had landed in North Tel Aviv, Beersheba and near Jerusalem.
Lines formed at hospitals as Israelis were urged to donate blood to help a growing number of people who were being admitted with serious injuries. Schools across the country were closed.