Fighting between Hamas and Israel raged into a third day Monday with militants launching a fresh barrage of rocket attacks and Israeli forces still battling to expel Hamas gunmen from its soil as jets continued to bombard the Palestinian enclave of Gaza.
Israel on Sunday formally declared war on the Islamist militant group Hamas after its fighters launched an unprecedented surprise assault this weekend into Israeli territory that has so far killed over 700 people in Israel, escalating a long-running conflict and leaving a nation reeling in anguish.
Hamas militants claimed late Sunday to be holding more than 100 hostages in Gaza, including high-ranking Israeli army officers, according to Mousa Abu Marzouk, chief deputy of Hamas’s Political Bureau.
Videos on social media showed militants capturing multiple civilians, including children, as Israeli families across the nation made anxious pleas for the safe return of their loved ones.
In addition to Israeli captives, there are also other nationalities believed to have been taken hostage, including American, Mexican, Brazilian and Thai nationals – further complicating Israel’s response to the Hamas attack.
And the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) confirmed early Monday local time that Israel is not in full control of its territory along the border with Gaza.
“Our troops are going door to door and house to house, looking for, and in many cases, engaging with last terrorists inside Israel.”
For now airstrikes have been the primary retaliation measure within Gaza itself with Israeli jets repeatedly pounding the heavily populated 140 square mile coastal strip, turning multiple buildings to rubble.
More than 430 Palestinians, including dozens of children, have been killed and nearly 2,300 wounded, according to authorities in Gaza.
The IDF says it has been hitting Hamas, destroying around 800 targets and killing “hundreds” of fighters, wounding thousands and capturing scores of others, spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said on Sunday.
Tens of thousands of people have been displaced in Gaza, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency said, and access to medical care has been complicated by Israel cutting power to the territory, threatening “lives of hundreds” of those injured, the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza said.
While the full scale of what the Israeli response will be remains unclear, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday predicted a “long and difficult war” and vowed “mighty vengeance” on Hamas.
Sounds of battle
The IDF said the priority for the coming hours and days was to “control the entire enclave and kill all the terrorists in our territory,” Hecht said.
Israeli fighters continued to clash with Hamas militants on Israeli soil early Monday morning in up to eight locations. Hecht said it was possible that more Hamas gunmen were still crossing into Israel from Gaza, and that areas Israel is targeting with airstrikes are points where militants were gathering to cross the border.
Israel’s declaration of war set the stage for a major military operation in Gaza and tanks and personnel carriers could be seen on the move near the Israel-Gaza border on Sunday.
Thousands of Israeli reservists have been called up and the IDF announced that several communities close to the Gaza security fence are being evacuated.
An Israeli military official and a United States defense official said Israel is requesting precision guided bombs and additional Iron Dome interceptors from the US, including Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs – a kit that turns an unguided “dumb” bomb into a precision “smart” weapon.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the US will provide security assistance to Israel imminently. The US said it was also sending a Navy carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean Sea, including guided missile destroyers and guided missile cruisers.
Horror on the ground
Many Israelis have spent much of the past two days in bomb shelters and saferooms.
Throughout the bloody weekend, Hamas rockets made direct hits on multiple locations inside the country including Tel Aviv, while armed terror groups entered Israel and infiltrated military bases, towns and farms, shooting at civilians and taking hostages.
Among those killed in Israel are 12 Thai citizens, 10 Nepalis, four US nationals, two Ukrainians, one French and one British citizen.
Images and videos show the horror unfolding on the ground.
Photos released by the Israeli foreign ministry showed dozens of bodies in the aftermath of a Hamas attack on a music festival near the Israel-Gaza border, which emergency responders said left at least 260 dead.
“One couldn’t describe it with words. It’s impossible…It was a very difficult moment,” Yakov Argamani said, describing the moment he saw the video of his 25-year-old daughter Noa for the first time.
The IDF said Monday that Be’eri was “very badly hit,” and although most Hamas militants in the kibbutz have been killed, Israeli troops were still fighting there.
Attacks into southern Israel
Hamas claimed attacks in several parts of southern Israel on Sunday, including in Mavki’im, just north of Gaza, where it said its forces were still present and conducting operations.
Hamas militants also claimed to have launched “a major missile attack with 100 rockets” on the southern coastal city of Ashkelon, close to the Gaza border. Israeli police said a rocket attack made a “direct hit” on an apartment building there.
And in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, Hamas said it fired dozens of rockets in retaliation to the targeting of “homes” in Gaza by Israeli forces.
Israeli warplanes continued striking Gaza overnight Sunday into Monday and “severely degraded the capabilities” of Hamas, the IDF said. Among the targets was a structure that housed Hamas operatives and several Hamas command centers, including one belonging to a senior operative of the Hamas naval forces.
The barrage of Israeli strikes in Gaza have also inflicted casualties on civilians in what is one of the world’s most densely populated places.
At least 13 family members, including four toddlers, were killed in an Israeli airstrike in Khan Younis in southern Gaza Sunday, according to journalist Hassan Eslayeh and a family relative.
Regional concerns of escalation
The attacks come after months of surging violence between Palestinians and Israelis, with the long-running conflict now heading into uncharted and dangerous new territory. Questions remain over how the Israeli military and intelligence apparatus appeared to be caught off guard in one of the country’s worst security failures.
Hamas’ highly coordinated assault, which began Saturday morning, was unprecedented in its scale and scope and came on the 50th anniversary of the 1973 War in which Arab states blitzed Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
Fighting between the two sides has surged in the past two years. The violence has been driven by frequent Israeli military raids in Palestinian towns and cities, which Israel has said are a necessary response to a rising number of attacks by Palestinian militants on Israelis.
Concerns the conflict could spill out into the region were raised Sunday when Lebanese group Hezbollah claimed responsibility for targeting three Israeli sites in an area known as Shebaa Farms, using missiles and artillery. The area is considered by Lebanon as Israeli-occupied.
The IDF said its artillery struck the area in Lebanon where the firing originated and said it “will continue to operate in all regions and at any time necessary to ensure the safety of the Israeli civilians.”
On Sunday, the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting but no action was taken afterward. The Deputy US Ambassador to the UN said “not all” the member nations had condemned Hamas’ attacks, but did not specify which. All 15 members need to vote unanimously for the UNSC to release a statement.