Israel said it was at war with the Palestinian militant group Hamas on Saturday, after a surprise attack from the Gaza Strip that involved thousands of rockets and dozens of gunmen infiltrating into several Israeli towns and military bases.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the country was facing an unprecedented threat from Hamas, which he accused of being backed by Iran. He vowed to retaliate with a massive mobilization of the reserves and a fierce response that would make the enemy pay a heavy price.
“Citizens of Israel, we are at war. Not an operation, not a round [of fighting], at war! This morning Hamas initiated a murderous surprise attack against the state of Israel and its citizens,” Netanyahu said in a televised statement from the Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv.
He said he had given orders to clear the urban areas of the terrorists who had penetrated them, and to strike back at the rocket launchers and tunnels in Gaza. He urged the public to follow the instructions of the military and the Home Front Command, and to stay in safe areas.
“We are at war and we will win,” he said.
The attack, which began around 6 a.m. local time, caught Israel off guard and triggered a state of emergency. Hamas fired more than 5,000 rockets at Israel in a matter of hours, targeting major cities such as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Beersheba. The Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted most of the rockets, but some hit residential buildings, schools, hospitals and roads, causing casualties and damage.
At the same time, Hamas sent dozens of gunmen through underground tunnels and across the border fence into several Israeli towns and communities near Gaza, such as Sderot, Netivot, Eshkol and Sha’ar Hanegev. The gunmen, armed with rifles, grenades and explosives, attacked homes, cars, shops and IDF bases, killing and wounding civilians and soldiers. Some of them wore IDF uniforms or carried Israeli flags to disguise themselves.
The IDF said it was engaged in fierce battles with the infiltrators in multiple locations, and that it had killed at least 60 terrorists so far. It also said it had launched airstrikes and artillery fire at Hamas targets in Gaza, destroying rocket launchers, command centers, weapons depots and tunnels. It said it had killed more than 200 militants in Gaza, including senior commanders.
The IDF also confirmed that it had shot down two drones that had entered Israeli airspace from Gaza, one of them carrying explosives.
The attack was the most serious escalation of violence between Israel and Hamas since the 2014 war, which lasted 50 days and killed more than 2,000 Palestinians and 73 Israelis. It came amid rising tensions over Jerusalem, where clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters have erupted in recent weeks over access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a holy site for both Muslims and Jews.
Hamas claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was a response to Israel’s “aggression” against Jerusalem and Gaza. It said it had launched “Operation Sword of Jerusalem” to defend the holy city and its people. It also said it had coordinated with other Palestinian factions in Gaza, such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a speech from Qatar that the attack was a “historic victory” for the Palestinian resistance. He said Hamas had surprised Israel with its capabilities and determination. He also called on Arab and Muslim countries to support the Palestinian cause.
“We are not afraid of death or war. We are ready to sacrifice ourselves for our land, our holy places and our dignity,” he said.
The international community condemned the attack and called for an immediate end to the hostilities. The United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting to discuss the situation and urged both sides to de-escalate and respect international humanitarian law. The United States expressed its support for Israel’s right to defend itself and its concern for civilian casualties on both sides. It also said it was working with regional partners to restore calm and prevent further escalation.
The attack also sparked protests and solidarity rallies in several countries, especially in the Middle East and Europe. Thousands of people took to the streets to express their support for either Israel or Palestine, waving flags and chanting slogans. Some of the protests turned violent, as clashes broke out between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian demonstrators or with police forces.
The attack also affected global markets, as oil prices rose amid fears of instability in the region. The Israeli shekel fell against the US dollar, while the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange suspended trading due to security reasons.
The attack raised fears of a full-scale war between Israel and Hamas that could have devastating consequences for both sides and the region. Analysts said that both sides had miscalculated each other’s intentions and capabilities, and that neither side had an exit strategy or a clear goal. They also said that the attack could have implications for other regional issues, such as the Iranian nuclear deal, the Syrian civil war and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.