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Death toll surpasses 1,100 after Israel retaliates for surprise Hamas attack

Palestinians inspect the rubble of a building after it was struck by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on Sunday. | Source: Fatima Shbair/Associated Press

The Israeli government formally declared war Sunday and gave the green light for “significant military steps” to retaliate against Hamas for its surprise attack, as the military tried to crush fighters still in southern towns and intensified its bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the country 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."

Israel launched retaliation strikes that leveled buildings in Gaza, while in northern Israel a brief exchange of strikes with Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group raised fears of a broader conflict.

There was still some fighting underway more than 24 hours after an unprecedented surprise attack from Gaza, in which Hamas militants, backed by a volley of thousands of rockets, broke through Israel's security barrier and rampaged through nearby communities.

The toll passed 1,100 dead and thousands wounded on both sides, with civilians paying a deep cost. At least 700 people have reportedly been killed in Israel — a staggering toll on a scale the country has not experienced in decades — and more than 400 have been killed in Gaza.

The militants also took captives 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. 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.

The Washington Post reported that hundreds of United Airlines passengers flying from San Francisco to Tel Aviv on Friday night were in the air for more than 14 hours before landing in San Francisco again because of the violence. A Flight Aware map showed flight UA 954 taking off just before 8 p.m., doubling back before reaching Greenland and landing in California around 10:30 a.m. Saturday. United canceled its flights for the same route Sunday.

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.

Israeli soldiers take position at the southern Israeli town of Ofakim on Sunday, Oct.8, 2023. Hamas militants stormed over the border fence Saturday, killing hundreds of Israelis in surrounding communities. The burning car was used by the gunmen and set on fire by the residents. | Source: Ilan Assayag

'This War Will Take Time'

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.

Yohanan Plesner, the head of the Israel Democracy Institute, a local think tank, said the decision is largely symbolic, but "demonstrates that the government thinks we are entering a more lengthy, intense and significant period of war.”

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.”

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. 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.

Palestinian carry the body of Ahmad Awawda, 19, who was killed in clashes with Israeli troops near the city of Nablus the previous day, during his funeral in the West Bank city of Jenin on Sunday. | Source: Majdi Mohammed/Associated Press

Israeli Tourists Killed in Egypt

In neighboring Egypt, a policeman shot dead two Israeli tourists and an Egyptian at a tourist site in Alexandria, the Interior Ministry said. Egypt made peace with Israel decades ago, but anti-Israel sentiment runs high in the country, especially during bouts of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

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.”

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.

Palestinians scour the debris from the rubble of a building after it was struck by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on Sunday. | Source: Fatima Shbair/Associated Press

Hamas Gunmen Blast Through Fence, Enter Israel on Motorcycles, Boats, Paragliders

The surprise attack 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.

They rolled into as many as 22 locations outside the Gaza Strip early Saturday morning, including towns and other communities as far as 24 kilometers (15 miles) from the Gaza border, while Hamas launched thousands of rockets at Israeli cities.

“Israel is waking up this morning to a terrible morning,” said Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an Israeli military spokesman. “There are a lot of people killed ... children, grandmothers, families, bodies.”

Israeli media said at least 600 people were killed and 2,000 wounded in Saturday’s attack. Hamas fighters took an unknown number of civilians and soldiers captive into Gaza, and a line of Israelis with missing relatives snaked outside a police station in central Israel to supply investigators with DNA samples and other means that could help identify their family members.

Israel struck 426 targets in Gaza, its military said, flattening residential buildings in giant explosions.

Among the 313 killed in Gaza were 20 children, and close to 2,000 people were wounded, the Palestinian Health Ministry said. UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, said more than 20,000 Palestinians left Gaza's border region to head further inside the territory and take refuge in U.N. schools.

In a televised address Saturday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military will use all of its strength to destroy Hamas’ capabilities.

“Get out of there now,” he told Gaza residents, who have no way to leave the tiny, overcrowded Mediterranean territory. Gaza’s 2.3 million people have endured a border blockade, enforced to varying degrees by Israel and Egypt, since Hamas militants seized control in 2007.

In Gaza, much of the population was thrown into darkness 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.

A digger removes the rubble from the police station that was overrun by Hamas militants on Saturday, in Sderot, Israel, on Sunday. | Source: Ohad Zwigenberg/Associated Press

Exact Count of Hostages Unclear

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.

An Egyptian official said Israel has sought help from Cairo to ensure the safety of the hostages, and that Egypt’s intelligence chief had contacted Hamas and the smaller but more radical Islamic Jihad group, which also took part in the incursion, to seek information. Egypt has often mediated between the two sides in the past.

The official said Palestinian leaders claimed that they don’t yet have a “full picture” of hostages, but said those who were brought into Gaza were taken to “secure locations” across the territory.

“It’s clear that they have a big number — several dozens,” said the official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to brief media.

Egypt also spoke with both sides about a potential cease-fire, but the official said Israel was not open to a truce “at this stage.”

In Iran, which has long supported Hamas and other militant groups, President Ebrahim Raisi praised the “legitimate defense” of the Palestinian nation and said Israel and its supporters “must be held accountable.” Raisi spoke by phone with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhalah, the state-run IRNA news agency reported Sunday.

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.

President Joe Biden said from the White House that the U.S. “stands with the people of Israel in the face of these terrorist assaults," and said Israel has the right to defend itself.

Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, said Washington is looking at additional requests for assistance that the Israelis have made, and there could be developments on that front later Sunday.

Blinken, who gave interviews to multiple U.S. television news shows Sunday, also talked about how the Hamas attack could have been motivated in part to derail an emerging diplomatic deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

"It's no surprise that those who are opposed to the talks, those who are opposed to Israel normalizing relations with its neighbors and the countries beyond the region are Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. And so it's entirely possible that one of the motivations for this attack was to try to derail these efforts to advance normalization," Blinken said.

He said Washington had seen reports that Americans were missing or had been killed and "we're working overtime to verify that."

Iranian Official Praises Hamas

Ali Shamkhani, the political adviser to Iran's supreme leader, said in a post on X that the Hamas attack was "a decisive, unique and effective" operation that was a legitimate defense against the Israeli government.
"The Palestinian resistance is a mature and independent movement whose power comes from widespread public support," he added.

The U.N. agency for Palestinian Refugees, UNRWA, said over 20,000 people were sheltering in 44 of its schools around Gaza by Saturday evening.

"The number (of displaced) is rapidly increasing, " said Inas Hamdan, acting public information officer in Gaza.

The agency said three of its schools suffered "collateral" damage from Israeli airstrikes. The agency also said its operations of nine water wells around the Gaza Strip were stopped early Saturday. Operations in three wells resumed Sunday, said Hamdan. The agency's food distribution centers, which provide for over 540,000 of Gaza residents, have been closed since Saturday.

In an UNRWA school in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood northwest of Gaza city center, residents described overnight Israeli strikes that hit the school's courtyard causing panic and light injuries among those sheltering there.

At another school serving as a shelter in central Gaza city, people were piling blankets and food stuff in the three-story building. New arrivals brought in mattresses, packing their children into small and crowded classrooms.

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