JERUSALEM: Israeli soldiers fought to repel Hamas militants Sunday, a day after they broke out of the blockaded Gaza Strip and rampaged through nearby Israeli communities in an unprecedented surprise attack, while Israel’s retaliation strikes leveled buildings in Gaza and its prime minister said the country was at war.
In an assault of startling breadth, Hamas gunmen rolled into as many as 22 locations outside the Gaza Strip, including towns and other communities as far as 24 kilometers from the Gaza border, while Hamas launched thousands of rockets at Israeli cities.
Several Israeli media outlets are reporting that the death toll from Hamas’ wide-ranging incursion into Israel has risen to 600.
The Kan public broadcaster and Channel 12, as well as the Haaretz and Times of Israel newspapers, reported the toll Sunday.
There has been no official confirmation of the number of deaths on the Israeli side since the fighting erupted early Saturday. Palestinian officials say more than 300 people have been killed in Gaza, without differentiating between fighters and civilians.
On Sunday, Israel was fighting Hamas incursions in eight places, the Israeli military said. An Israeli military spokesperson said Sunday morning that two hostage situations had been “resolved,” but did not say whether all the hostages had been rescued alive.
Israel struck 426 targets in Gaza, its military said, flattening residential buildings in giant explosions. That included a 14-storey tower that held dozens of apartments as well as Hamas offices in central Gaza City. Israeli forces fired a warning just before.
The conflict threatened to escalate with Israel’s vows of retaliation, and fears of attacks from Hezbollah, a militant group allied with Hamas in Lebanon, on Israel’s northern border.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group fired dozens of rockets and shells on Sunday at three Israeli positions in a disputed area along the country’s border with Syria’s Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Hezbollah said in a statement that the attack using “large numbers of rockets and shells” was in solidarity with the “Palestinian resistance.” It said the Israeli positions were directly hit.
Israel’s military fired back at the Lebanese areas, but there was no immediate word on casualties.
The Israeli army said it shelled the areas where the fire came from on the Lebanese side of the border.
Chebaa Farms was captured by Israel from Syria during the 1967 Mideast war, but Lebanon considers it and the nearby Kfar Chouba hills as Lebanese territories.
The Golan Heights were annexed by Israel in 1981.
The Israeli military said that it was striking an area in Lebanon from which strikes on Israeli towns had come, but did not say who had launched the strikes. In previous Israel-Hamas conflicts, Hezbollah has sat on the sidelines while smaller Palestinian groups have launched rockets from Lebanon.
In a televised address Saturday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military will use all of its strength to destroy Hamas’ capabilities. “All the places that Hamas hides in, operates from, we will turn them into ruins,” he added.
“Get out of there now,” he told Gaza residents, who have no way to leave the tiny, overcrowded Mediterranean territory.
Overnight, the Israeli military issued warnings in Arabic to communities near the border with Israel to leave their homes for areas deeper inside the tiny enclave.
Gaza’s 2.3 million people have endured a border blockade, enforced to varying degrees by Israel and Egypt, since Hamas militants seized control in 2007.
Previous conflicts between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers brought widespread death and destruction in Gaza and days of rocket fire on Israeli towns. The situation is potentially more volatile now, with Israel’s far-right government stung by the security breach and with Palestinians in despair over a never-ending occupation in the West Bank and suffocating blockade of Gaza.
On Sunday, militants fired more rockets from Gaza, hitting a hospital in the Israeli coastal town of Ashkelon, said senior hospital official Tal Bergman. Video provided by Barzilai Medical Center showed a large hole punched into a wall and chunks of debris scattered on the ground of what appeared to be an empty room and a hallway. The military said patients had been evacuated from Barzilai before the strike.
School was canceled across Israel.
Around 3 a.m., a loudspeaker atop a mosque in Gaza City blared a stark warning to residents of nearby apartment buildings: Evacuate immediately. Just minutes later, an Israeli airstrike reduced one nearby five-storey building to ashes.
After one Israeli strike, a Hamas rocket barrage hit four cities, including Tel Aviv and a nearby suburb. Throughout the day, Hamas fired more than 3,500 rockets, the Israeli military said.
The shadowy leader of Hamas’ military wing, Mohammed Deif, said the assault was in response to the 16-year blockade of Gaza, and a series of recent incidents that have brought Israeli-Palestinian tensions to a fever pitch.
Over the past year, Israel’s far-right government has ramped up settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, Israeli settler violence has displaced hundreds of Palestinians there, and tensions have flared around the Al-Aqsa mosque, a flashpoint Jerusalem holy site.
“Enough is enough,” Deif, who does not appear in public, said in the recorded message. He said the attack was only the start of what he called “Operation Al-Aqsa Storm” and called on Palestinians from east Jerusalem to northern Israel to join the fight.
The Hamas incursion on Simchat Torah, a normally joyous day when Jews complete the annual cycle of reading the Torah scroll, revived painful memories of the 1973 Mideast war practically 50 years to the day, in which Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, aiming to take back Israeli-occupied territories.
Comparisons to one of the most traumatic moments in Israeli history sharpened criticism of Netanyahu and his far-right allies, who had campaigned on more aggressive action against threats from Gaza. Political commentators lambasted the government and military over its failure to anticipate what appeared to be a Hamas attack unseen in its level of planning and coordination.
Asked by reporters how Hamas had managed to catch the army off guard, Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an Israeli army spokesman, replied, “That’s a good question.”
The abduction of Israeli civilians and soldiers also raised a particularly thorny issue for Israel, which has a history of making heavily lopsided exchanges to bring captive Israelis home. Israel is holding thousands of Palestinians in its prisons. Hecht confirmed that a “substantial” number of Israelis were abducted Saturday.
Associated Press photos showed an elderly Israeli woman being brought into Gaza on a golf cart by Hamas gunmen and another woman squeezed between two fighters on a motorcycle. AP journalists saw four people taken from the kibbutz of Kfar Azza, including two women.
In Gaza, a black jeep pulled to a stop and, when the rear door opened, a young woman stumbled out, bleeding from the head and with her hands tied behind her back. A man waving a gun in the air grabbed her by the hair and pushed her into the vehicle’s back seat.
A major question now was whether Israel will launch a ground assault into Gaza, a move that in the past has brought intensified casualties. Netanyahu vowed that Hamas “will pay an unprecedented price.” But, he warned, “This war will take time. It will be difficult.”
Israel’s military was bringing four divisions of troops as well as tanks to the Gaza border, joining 31 battalions already in the area, a spokesperson said.
Hamas said it had planned for a potentially long fight. “We are prepared for all options, including all-out war,” the deputy head of the Hamas political bureau, Saleh Al-Arouri, told Al-Jazeera TV. “We are ready to do whatever is necessary for the dignity and freedom of our people.”