Israel battles Hamas as PM warns of ‘long and difficult war’
Israeli forces battled holdout Hamas fighters and pounded targets in the Gaza Strip on Sunday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of a “long and difficult” war ahead after the Palestinian militants launched a massive surprise attack.
Gun fights raged in towns and on highways as the Israeli army deployed tens of thousands of forces to secure southern desert regions near the coastal enclave, aiming to rescue Israeli hostages and then evacuate the entire region within 24 hours.
“We’ll reach each and every community till we kill every terrorist in Israel,” vowed military spokesman Daniel Hagari, a day after hundreds of Hamas fighters crossed into Israel using vehicles, boats and even motorised paragliders.
“Our mission for the upcoming 24 hours is to evacuate all residents” from areas around the Gaza Strip, he told journalists amid the fighting that has left hundreds dead on both sides.
Israel also came under attack from the north on Sunday when Lebanon’s Hezbollah launched guided missiles and artillery shells “in solidarity” with the unprecedented Hamas offensive, without causing any casualties.
Israel was shocked when Gaza’s ruling Islamist movement launched their multi-pronged shock offensive at dawn Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, with thousands of rockets and ground, air and sea forces, attacking and infiltrating Israeli towns and kibbutz communities and storming what media reported was an outdoor rave party.
Panicked Israelis phoned media outlets as they hid out in their homes from militants going door to door and shooting civilians or dragging them away.
The worst fighting in decades has killed more than 200 Israelis and wounded over 1,000, leaving bodies of civilians strewn on roads, while on the Gaza side at least 313 have died and over 1,700 were reported wounded.
An unknown number of Israelis were abducted as hostages, sparking dismay in Israel and massively complicating its military retaliation campaign.
According to Israeli news website Ynet, “dozens of Israeli captives, including numerous women, children and elders, are believed to have been taken into the Gaza Strip”.
Two Thai nationals were among those killed, and other Asian nationals, thousands of whom work as farm labourers in the region, were believed to be among the hostages.
Gun battles raged Sunday between Israeli forces and Hamas fighters in multiple locations, including at a police station in Sderot where special forces “neutralised 10 armed terrorists”, police said.
“A lot of people have been killed,” said army spokesman, Richard Hecht, after the military released the names of 26 fallen soldiers. “We lost soldiers, lost commanders and lost a lot of civilians.
“We are completing efforts to retake full control of Israeli territory from Hamas,” he added, reporting that the army had struck 426 Hamas targets including Gaza tunnels, buildings and other infrastructure.
– ‘No respite’ –
Global concern has mounted, with Western capitals condemning the attack by Hamas, which Washington and Brussels consider a terrorist group.
Israel’s foes, including Iran and Hezbollah, have praised the assault.
Anti-Israel protests have flared in some other Muslim countries, and Germany and France were among countries 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 government but has received support from political opponents during Israel’s national emergency — has vowed to turn Hamas hideouts “to rubble” and urged Palestinians there to flee as air strikes continued.
“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.
“The first stage is ending at this time with the destruction of the vast majority of the enemy forces that infiltrated our territory,” he added, pledging no “respite” until victory.
US President Joe Biden has voiced “rock solid and unwavering” support for its key ally Israel and warned “against any other party hostile to Israel seeking advantage in this situation”.
But early Sunday Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement joined the fray from the north.
It said it had fired “large numbers of artillery shells and guided missiles” at positions in contested border areas “in solidarity” with Hamas.
Israel’s army massed tanks in the north after earlier firing artillery on Lebanon in response to a shot from the area.
– ‘Liberate our land’ –
Hamas has labelled its major attack “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood” and called on “resistance fighters in the West Bank” as well as in “Arab and Islamic nations” to join the battle.
Its attack came half a century after the outbreak of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, stunning Israel and sparking bitter recriminations inside the country on what was widely seen as an enormous intelligence failure.
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. Several bypassed the Iron Dome missile defence system and smashed into buildings as far as Tel Aviv.
Under the cover of the rocket barrage, hundreds of Hamas fighters tore through the militarised Gaza border fence and crossed into Israel.
Israel responded by rushing forces to the embattled south, calling up reservists and hitting Gaza in operation “Swords of Iron”, with some observers predicting a possible ground invasion of Gaza.
Israeli attacks have reduced several Gaza residential towers to rubble in what Israel said were strikes aimed at Hamas facilities and which had followed warning calls for people inside to evacuate.
Another strike completely destroyed a mosque in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip.
Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, leading to Israel’s crippling 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.
The new war follows months of rising violence in the occupied West Bank and tensions around Gaza’s border and at contested holy sites in Jerusalem.
Before Saturday, the conflict had killed at least 247 Palestinians, 32 Israelis and two foreigners, including combatants and civilians, this year, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials.
Violence flared again in the West Bank Saturday, leaving at least seven Palestinians dead, said the health ministry in Ramallah.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged “all diplomatic efforts to avoid a wider conflagration” and stressed that “only through negotiation leading to a two-state solution can peace be achieved”.