Israel formally declared war on Sunday and gave the green light for “significant military steps” to retaliate against Hamas for its surprise attack.
At least 700 people have reportedly been killed in Israel and more than 100 civilians have been abducted by hamas— a staggering toll on a scale the country has not experienced in decades — and more than 400 have reportedly been killed in Gaza as Israeli airstrikes pound the territory.
Fighting between Israel’s military and Hamas fighters in southern Israel continued into Sunday in Asheklon and other areas of the south of the country.
The Israeli military evacuated at least five towns close to Gaza and has been scouring them for militants.
Hamas said that overnight it had continued to send forces and equipment into “a number of locations inside our occupied territories,” referring to Israel. Hamas-linked media reported that the son of Nizar Awadallah, a senior political official, was killed. The Islamic militant group has not reported any senior members being captured, killed or wounded.
And in northern Israel on Sunday there was a brief exchange of strikes with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, raising fears of a broader conflict.
The surprise attack on Saturday was the deadliest on Israel in decades. In an assault of startling breadth, Hamas gunmen used explosives to break through the border fence enclosing Gaza, then crossed with motorcycles, pickup trucks, paragliders and speed boats on the coast.
The high death toll, multiple captives and slow response to the onslaught pointed to a major intelligence failure and undermined the long-held perception that Israel has eyes and ears everywhere in the small, densely populated territory it has controlled for decades.
The shadowy leader of Hamas’ military wing, Mohammed Deif, said the assault, named “Operation Al-Aqsa Storm,” 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.
The fate of the Israeli hostages
The militants took dozens of Israelis back into the coastal Gaza enclave, including women, children and the elderly, whom they will likely try to trade for thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Israeli TV news aired a stream of accounts from the relatives of captive or missing Israelis, who wailed and begged for assistance amid a fog of uncertainty surrounding the fate of their loved ones.
The leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group said militants in Gaza are holding dozens of Israeli prisoners, including more than 30 held by his group
Ziad Nakhaleh said in a televised speech on Sunday night that the captives will not be released until all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are set free.
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad group took part in the operation that Hamas carried out Saturday in which hundreds of Israelis were killed.
“The prisoners that are being held are in the tens and I can say that they are much more than that,” said Nakhaleh, who usually lives in Beirut.
He added that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad has more than 30 prisoners and that Israel should acknowledge defeat.
The presence of hostages in Gaza complicates Israel’s response. Hamas officials have said they will seek the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, and Israel has a history of making heavily lopsided exchanges to bring captive Israelis home.
The military has confirmed that a “substantial” number of Israelis were abducted Saturday without giving an exact figure.
US aid for Israel
The Pentagon has ordered the Ford carrier strike group to be ready to assist Israel, two US officials said. The carrier was already in the Mediterranean conducting naval exercises with Italy.
The USS Gerald R. Ford is the United States’ newest and most advanced aircraft carrier.
The vessel and its approximately 5,000 sailors and deck of warplanes will be accompanied by cruisers and destroyers in a show of force that is meant to be ready to respond to anything, from possibly interdicting additional weapons from reaching Hamas and conducting surveillance.
The large deployment, which also includes a host of ships and warplanes, underscores the concern that the United States has in trying to deter the conflict from growing.
President Joe Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday morning, the White House said, and told the Israeli prime minister that “additional assistance for the Israeli Defence Forces” is now on the way to Israel.
There will be more assistance in the coming days, Biden told Netanyahu, according to the White House. It was their second call since the surprise Hamas attack.
Biden and Netanyahu plan to remain in touch, and the two leaders also discussed “ongoing efforts to ensure that no enemies of Israel believe they can or should seek advantage from the current situation.”
Gaza and the West Bank
The Palestinian Ministry of Health said Sunday said that 413 Palestinians killed and 2,300 wounded. Eight people were also killed in parts of the West Bank including two each in Ramallah, Jericho and Hebron. A child was killed in Qalqilya, and another person died in Nablus.
The number of wounded in the West Bank governorates stood at more than 60 on Sunday, the ministry said.
In Gaza, residents fled homes near the border to escape Israeli strikes, fleeing deeper inside the territory after warnings in Arabic from the Israeli military.
The U.N. agency for Palestinians refugees says 74,000 people in Gaza Strip have taken shelter in dozens of its schools following calls from Israel for residents of border areas to evacuate. The number of displaced increased by nearly 50,000 overnight, when about 20,000 first moved into U.N.-operated schools.
UNRWA said Sunday the number is likely to increase amid heavy shelling and airstrikes in different parts of the overpopulated besieged territory of 2 million people.
The agency confirmed that one of its schools was directly hit earlier Sunday and said it suffered severe damage but there were no casualties. Associated Press video shot Sunday showed a large crater in the middle of the Gaza school that sheltered 225 people.
“Schools and other civilian infrastructure, including those sheltering displaced families, must never come under attack,” UNRWA said in a statement.
Much of the population in Gaza was thrown into darkness on Saturday night as Israel cut off electricity and said it would no longer supply power, fuel or other goods to the territory.
Hamas said it had planned for a 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.
The fate of foreign nationals
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN’s “State of the Union” that the U.S. is working to verify reports that “several” Americans were killed or are missing.
Three British men were said to either be dead or missing after the Hamas attack on Israel.
Nathanel Young, 20, was killed while serving in the Israel Defensc Forces, his sister, Gaby Shalev, said on Facebook. His death was later confirmed by the Israeli Embassy in London.
British photographer Danny Darlington, who lived in Berlin, and his German girlfriend, Carolin Bohl, had not been heard from after hiding out in a bunker at kibbutz Nir Oz, according to Sam Pasquesi, who is Bohl’s brother-in-law.
Pasquesi said his family learned later Sunday from a man working at the kibbutz that the bodies of the two had been identified.
Jake Marlow, 26, had been providing security at a music festival near kibbutz Re’im when he called his mother, Lisa, before dawn to say rockets were flying overhead.
He texted her an hour later but that was the last she heard from him, she told Jewish News. The Israeli Embassy in London did not know if Marlowe “is taken hostage or dead or in a hospital,” a spokesperson said.
The U.K. Foreign Office did not immediately return messages seeking comment on the three.
A French woman in Israel has died “in the context of the terrorist attacks,” France’s foreign ministry said Sunday, without providing details. French teams in Israel and Paris are trying to clarify the situations of several citizens who have not been located, the statement said.
Germany’s Foreign Ministry says it has to assume that German citizens are among those kidnapped by Hamas on Saturday. It didn’t say how many people that might be, but said they are all believed also to be Israeli citizens.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko said two Ukrainian women had been killed. Both had lived in Israel for a long time, he said without elaborating on the circumstances of their death.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said two Belarusians were injured during the shelling of the city of Ashkelon, and one of them was in serious condition.
Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, Ron Dermer, said American citizens are among those who were taken captive but gave no details about them, nor about Americans who might have been killed.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the country was at war and would exact a heavy price from its enemies. His Security Cabinet officially declared the country at war in an announcement on Sunday, saying the decision formally authorizes “the taking of significant military steps.”
The implications of the announcement were not immediately clear. Israel has carried out major military campaigns over the past four decades in Lebanon and Gaza that it portrayed as wars, but without a formal declaration. Hamas leaders have said they are prepared for any further escalation.
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 hit more than 800 targets in Gaza so far, its military said, including airstrikes that levelled much of the town of Beit Hanoun in the enclave’s northeast corner.
Hezbollah fires rockets into Israel
The flare-up on Israel’s northern border also threatened to draw into the battle Hezbollah, a fierce enemy of Israel’s which is backed by Iran and estimated to have tens of thousands of rockets at its disposal. Hezbollah fired dozens of rockets and shells on Sunday at three Israeli positions in a disputed area along the border and Israel’s military fired back using armed drones. Two children were lightly wounded by broken glass on the Lebanese side, according to the nearby Marjayoun Hospital.
Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, an Israeli military official, told reporters the situation at the northern border was calm after the exchange. But he said fighting was still underway in the south and that there were still hostage situations there.
He said troops had moved into every community near the Gaza frontier, where they planned to evacuate all civilians and scour the area for militants.
“We will go through every community until we kill every terrorist that is in Israeli territory,” he said. In Gaza, “every terrorist located in a house, all the commanders in houses, will be hit by Israeli fire. That will continue escalating in the coming hours.”
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