The ruling Hamas group in the Gaza Strip carried out an unprecedented, multi-front attack on Israel at daybreak Saturday, firing thousands of rockets as dozens of Hamas fighters infiltrated the heavily fortified border in several locations by air, land and sea and catching the country off-guard on a major holiday.
Six hours after the attack began, Hamas were still fighting gunbattles inside several Israeli communities in a surprising show of strength that shook the country. Israel’s national rescue service said at least 22 people have been killed and hundreds wounded, making it the deadliest attack in Israel in years.
The Soroka Medical Center in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba said it was treating at least 280 casualties, with 60 in serious condition.
There was no official comment on casualties in Gaza, but Associated Press reporters witnessed the funerals of 15 people who were killed and saw another eight bodies arrive at a local hospital. It was not immediately clear if they were fighters or civilians.
Social media was replete with videos of Hamas fighters parading what appeared to be stolen Israeli military vehicles through the streets and at least one dead Israeli soldier within Gaza being dragged and trampled by an angry crowd of Palestinians shouting “God is Great.”
Videos released by Hamas appeared to show at least three Israelis captured alive. The military declined to give details about casualties or kidnappings as it continued to battle the infiltrators.
“We are at war,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised address, declaring a mass mobilization of the country’s army reserves. “Not an ‘operation,’ not a ‘round,’ but at war.”
“The enemy will pay an unprecedented price,” he added, promising that Israel would “return fire of a magnitude that the enemy has not known.”
The serious attack 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 Israel’s enemies launched a surprise attack on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
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 over its failure to anticipate what appeared to be a Hamas attack unseen in its level of planning and coordination.
The Israeli rescue service Magen David Adom reported at least 16 casualties, including a woman in her 60s who was killed when a rocket fired from Gaza made a direct hit. Two others were in serious condition.
There were reports of many more casualties on both sides, but authorities did not immediately release details. Israeli media reported that dozens of people were hospitalized in southern Israel. The Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza reported injuries among “many citizens” without giving numbers and loudspeakers on mosques broadcast prayers of mourning for killed fighters.