The ruling Hamas militant 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.
Israel’s national rescue service says at least 22 people have been killed and hundreds wounded. The numbers make the operation the deadliest in Israeli territory in years. There have been 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 militants.
Six hours after the invasion began, Hamas militants were still fighting gunbattles inside several Israeli communities in a surprising show of strength that shook the country. Civilians in the southern and central regions of the country have been warned to shelter in place.
“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 attack began with an early-dawn rocket attack that lasted for nearly half an hour. Thousands of rockets were launched from inside Gaza, some making it as far as Tel Aviv, causing widespread damage. Next came an invasion from Hamas militants who had infiltrated Israel in at least seven locations. The fighters had sneaked across the separation fence and even invaded Israel through the air with paragliders and by sea, the army said. The fighters stormed the streets of nearby border towns, setting Israeli tanks on fire as they went.
In the kibbutz of Nahal Oz, just 2.5 miles from the Gaza Strip, terrified residents who were huddled indoors said they could hear constant gunfire echoing off the buildings as firefights continued even hours after the initial attack.
“With rockets we somehow feel safer, knowing that we have the Iron Dome (missile defense system) and our safe rooms. But knowing that terrorists are walking around communities is a different kind of fear,” said Mirjam Reijnen, a 42-year-old volunteer firefighter and mother of three in Nahal Oz.
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.” CBS News has not verified the video. The military declined to give details about casualties or kidnappings as it continued to battle the infiltrators.
“At this time, the IDF is reinforcing the south and the communities surrounding the Gaza Strip with several operational forces,” said Rear. Admiral Daniel Hagari, an IDF spokesperson, in a statement to CBS News. “Operational commanders are arriving to manage the combat in each location. In parallel to this, we have begun a wide mobilization of reservists for all IDF units.”
In a televised address, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned that Hamas had made “a grave mistake” and promised that “the state of Israel will win this war.”
The escalation comes after weeks ofalong Israel’s volatile border with Gaza, and heavy fighting in the Israeli-occupied . It also comes at a delicate time for Netanyahu’s far-right government, with hundreds of soldiers in the military reserves have either pulling out of training sessions or promising they won’t report for duty over government’s deeply divisive plan to weaken the Supreme Court.
The divisions within army ranks have threatened to undermine Netanyahu’s reputation as a security expert who would do anything to protect Israel and the cohesion of an institution crucial to the stability of a country locked in low-intensity conflicts on multiple fronts and facing threats from Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group.
The infiltration of fighters into southern Israel marked a major accomplishment — and escalation — by Hamas that forced millions of Israelis to hunker down in safe rooms, sheltering from rocket explosions and ongoing gunbattles with Hamas fighters. Cities and towns emptied as the military closed roads near Gaza. Israel’s rescue service and the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza appealed to the public to donate blood.
“We understand that this is something big,” Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an Israeli army spokesman, told reporters. He said the Israeli military had called up the army reserves.
It was not immediately clear what prompted Hamas to launch its attack, which came after weeks of simmering tensions along the Gaza frontier. The shadowy leader of Hamas’ military wing, Mohammed Deif, announced the start of what he called “Operation Al-Aqsa Storm.”
“Enough is enough,” Deif, who does not appear in public, said in the recorded message, as he called on Palestinians from east Jerusalem to northern Israel to join the fight. “Today the people are regaining their revolution.”
Hezbollah congratulated Hamas on Friday, praising the attack as a response to “Israeli crimes” and saying the militants had “divine backing.” The group said its command in Lebanon was in contact with Hamas about the operation.
Ismail Haniyeh, the exiled leader of Hamas, said that Palestinian fighters were “engaged in these historic moments in a heroic operation” to defend the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
The serious invasion 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 attack comes at a time of historic division within Israel over Netanyahu’s proposal to. Mass protests over the plan have sent into the streets and prompted hundreds military reservists to avoid volunteer duty — turmoil that has raised fears over the military’s battlefield readiness and raised concerns about its deterrence over its enemies.
Hecht, the army spokesman, declined to comment on how Hamas had managed to catch the army off guard. “That’s a good question,” he said.
Israel has built a massive fence along the Gaza border meant to prevent infiltrations. It goes deep underground and is equipped with cameras, high-tech sensors and sensitive listening technology.
Israel has maintained a blockade over Gaza since Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007. The bitter enemies have fought four wars since then. There have also been numerous rounds of smaller fighting between Israel and Hamas and other smaller militant groups based in Gaza.
The blockade, which restricts the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, has devastated the territory’s economy. Israel says the blockade is needed to keep militant groups from building up their arsenals. The Palestinians say the closure amounts to collective punishment.
The rocket fire comes during a period of heavy fighting in the West Bank, where nearly 200 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli military raids this year. In the volatile northern West Bank, scores of militants and residents poured into the streets in celebration at the news of the rocket barrages.
Israel says the raids are aimed at militants, but stone-throwing protesters and people uninvolved in the violence have also been killed. Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets have killed over 30 people.
The tensions have also spread to Gaza, where Hamas-linked activists held violent demonstrations along the Israeli border in recent weeks. Those demonstrations were halted in late September after international mediation.