JERUSALEM (AP) — The Gaza Strip’s ruling Hamas militant group carried out an unprecedented attack on Israel at dawn Saturday, firing thousands of rockets as dozens of fighters infiltrated the heavily fortified border in several places through by air, land and sea, catching the country off guard on an important holiday.
Hours after the invasion began, Hamas militants were still fighting in several Israeli communities, in a surprising show of force that shook the country. Israel’s National Rescue Service said at least 40 people were killed and hundreds more injured, making it the deadliest attack in Israel in years.
At least 561 injured people were being treated in Israeli hospitals, including at least 77 in critical condition, according to an Associated Press tally based on public statements and calls to hospitals.
There was no official comment on the casualties in Gaza, but AP journalists attended the funerals of 15 people killed and saw eight more bodies arrive at a local hospital. It was not immediately clear whether they were fighters or civilians.
Social media was full of videos of Hamas fighters parading what appeared to be stolen Israeli military vehicles through the streets and of at least one dead Israeli soldier in Gaza being dragged and trampled by a crowd of angry Palestinians shouting “God is bigger “.
Videos released by Hamas appear to show at least three Israelis captured alive. The army refused to give details of the casualties or kidnappings as it continued its fight against the infiltrators.
“We are at war,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised speech, announcing a massive mobilization of the army. “Not an “operation”, not a “round”, but a war. »
“The enemy will pay an unprecedented price,” he added, promising that Israel would “retaliate with fire on a scale the enemy has not experienced.”
At a meeting of top security officials later Saturday, Netanyahu said the first priority was to “clear the area” of enemy infiltrators, then “exact a huge price from the enemy” and fortify the other areas so that no other militant groups can enter them. join the war.
The grave invasion of Simchat Torah, the normally joyous day when Jews complete the annual cycle of reading the Torah scroll, has revived painful memories of the 1973 Middle East War, almost 50 years to the day, in during which Israel’s enemies launched a surprise attack on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
Comparisons to one of the most traumatic moments in Israeli history have sharpened criticism of Netanyahu and his far-right allies, who had campaigned for more aggressive action against threats from Gaza . Political commentators castigated the government for its failure to anticipate what appeared to be a Hamas attack, unprecedented in its planning and coordination.
The Israeli military struck targets in Gaza in response to some 2,500 rockets that sent continuous air raid sirens as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the north. He said his forces were engaged in firefights with Hamas militants who had infiltrated Israel in at least seven locations. The fighters had slipped through the separation barrier and even invaded Israel from the air on paragliders, the army said.
Israeli television broadcast images of explosions tearing through the border fence between Gaza and Israel, followed by what appeared to be Palestinian gunmen entering Israel on motorcycles. Armed men also reportedly entered in vans.
It is unclear what prompted Hamas to launch these attacks, which likely required months of planning.
But over the past year, Israel’s far-right government has accelerated settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, Israeli settler violence has displaced hundreds of Palestinians there, and tensions have flared over a holy site in Jerusalem, hot spot.
The shadow leader of Hamas’s military wing, Mohammed Deif, announced the start of what he called “Operation Al-Aqsa Storm.” The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem is the third holiest site in Islam and is located on the holiest site for Jews, who call it the Temple Mount.
“Enough is enough,” Deif, who does not appear publicly, said in the recorded message, calling on Palestinians from East Jerusalem to northern Israel to join the fight. “Today, the people are rediscovering their revolution.”
In a televised speech, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned that Hamas had made “a grave mistake” and promised that “the State of Israel will win this war.”
Western countries condemned the incursion and reiterated their support for Israel, while others called on both sides to exercise restraint.
“The United States unequivocally condemns the unprovoked attacks by Hamas terrorists against Israeli civilians,” said Adrienne Watson, spokesperson for the US National Security Council. “We stand firmly with the government and people of Israel and offer our condolences for the Israeli lives lost in these attacks. »
Watson said Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, spoke with his Israeli counterpart, Tzachi Hanegbi.
Saudi Arabia, which is in talks with the United States on normalizing relations with Israel, issued a statement calling on both sides to exercise restraint. The kingdom said it had repeatedly warned of “the dangers of an explosion of the situation due to the continued occupation (and) the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights.”
The attack comes at a time of historic division within Israel over Netanyahu’s proposed reform of the justice system. Mass protests against the plan have sent hundreds of thousands of Israeli demonstrators into the streets and prompted hundreds of military reservists to avoid volunteering – unrest that has raised fears about the country’s readiness. army on the battlefield and concerns about its deterrence on its enemies.
The infiltration of fighters into southern Israel marked a major escalation by Hamas that has forced millions of Israelis to retreat to safety. Towns and villages emptied as the army closed roads near Gaza. Israeli emergency services and the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza called on the public to donate blood.
“We understand that this is something important,” Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an Israeli army spokesman, told reporters. He said the Israeli army had called up the army reserves.
Hecht declined to comment on how Hamas managed to catch the army off guard. “That’s a good question,” he said.
Ismail Haniyeh, the exiled Hamas leader, said Palestinian fighters were “engaged in these historic moments in a heroic operation” to defend the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
In Kibbutz Nahal Oz, just 4 kilometers from the Gaza Strip, terrified residents huddled indoors said they could hear constant gunfire echoing through buildings as the exchanges of fire continued even a few hours after the initial attack.
“With the rockets, we feel safer knowing that we have the Iron Dome (missile defense system) and our secure rooms. But knowing that terrorists are walking in communities is a different kind of fear,” said Mirjam Reijnen, a 42-year-old volunteer firefighter and mother of three in Nahal Oz.
Israel has built a huge fence along the border with Gaza intended to prevent infiltration. It goes deep underground and is equipped with cameras, high-tech sensors and sensitive listening technology.
The escalation comes after weeks of heightened tensions along Israel’s volatile border with Gaza and heavy fighting in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Saturday’s high-profile attack threatened to damage Netanyahu’s reputation as a security expert willing to do anything to protect Israel. It also raised questions about the cohesion of a security apparatus crucial to the stability of a country locked in low-intensity conflicts on multiple fronts and facing threats from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Hezbollah congratulated Hamas on Friday, hailing the attack as a response to “Israeli crimes” and saying the militants had “divine support.” The group said its command in Lebanon was in contact with Hamas about the operation.
Israel has maintained a blockade on Gaza since Hamas took control of the territory in 2007. The bitter enemies have fought four wars since then. There have also been numerous rounds of smaller fighting between Israel and Hamas and other smaller militant groups based in Gaza.
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 necessary to prevent militant groups from building up their arsenals. Palestinians say the closure amounts to collective punishment.
The rocket attacks come during a period of heavy fighting in the West Bank, where nearly 200 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli military raids this year. In the volatile northern West Bank, dozens of activists and residents took to the streets to celebrate news of rocket fire.
Israel says the raids target activists, but rock-throwing protesters and people not involved in the violence have also been killed. Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets have killed more than 30 people.
Tensions have also spilled over into Gaza, where Hamas-linked militants have staged violent protests along the Israeli border in recent weeks. These demonstrations were interrupted at the end of September after international mediation.
Adwan reported from Rafah, in the Gaza Strip. Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem contributed to this report.