Israel’s 9/11 – Hundreds of civilians killed in Hamas attack, massive retribution promised

By James Shotter and John Reed in Jerusalem for The Financial Times

The death toll from Hamas’s unprecedented multi-front assault on Israel passed 700 on Sunday, as the country’s armed forces hunted Palestinian militants still holding out in several locations.

By Sunday afternoon, Israel had regained control of most of the areas infiltrated by Hamas militants who stormed into the country from Gaza by land, air and sea before inflicting the highest number of casualties in a single attack within Israel’s borders since the state was founded in 1948.

Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Jewish state still faced a “long and difficult” conflict with Hamas as his security cabinet formally declared war.

Israeli officials said the Palestinian militant group was holding more than 100 Israelis, including women and children, whom it had taken hostage during its assault on Saturday.

The Israel Defense Forces said more than 700 Israelis were dead and a further 2,100 wounded. Israeli media said more than 250 bodies had been recovered from the site of a music festival in southern Israel that was attacked by Hamas militants.

In response to Hamas’s attack, Israel launched a huge bombardment of Gaza. It also hit targets in Lebanon on Sunday after the Iran-backed Hizbollah militant group fired mortars towards Israel.

In a further effort to ratchet up the pressure on Hamas, Israel cut off the supply of electricity, fuel and goods to Gaza. Israel and Egypt have subjected Gaza to a crippling economic blockade since Hamas took control in 2007.

Officials in Gaza said 413 people had been killed by Israeli strikes on the territory and that 2,300 had been wounded. One official in the enclave said its hospitals were running at full capacity because of the number of casualties they had received since Saturday.

“The main hospitals’ capacity in Gaza is 2,000 beds,” Medhat Abbas, a director-general with the health ministry, told the Financial Times by phone. “The number of patients we have received since yesterday morning is now more than 2,000. The situation is very bad.”

Speaking after a meeting of his security cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu said Israeli forces had destroyed the “vast majority of the enemy forces that infiltrated our territory”, and that it had now begun the “offensive phase”, amid speculation that Israel could launch a ground war in Gaza.

“[This offensive phase] will continue with neither limitations nor respite until the objectives are achieved,” he added.

However, on Sunday evening, 36 hours after the attack began, a spokesperson for Israel’s military said its forces were still hunting down Hamas militants who remained in the country. Hamas said its gunmen were still engaged in clashes in several areas in Israel and were being supported by rocket fire.

Israeli officials said militants in Gaza had fired more than 3,500 rockets at Israel during their initial barrage on Saturday, but that most casualties had been caused by close combat and “executions” by Hamas militants.

Speaking to Netanyahu by phone on Sunday, US president Joe Biden promised “additional assistance” for the Israeli military, “with more to follow over the coming days”. They also discussed hostage-taking by Hamas, which US and Israeli officials said included Americans.

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin ordered US navy ships and military aircraft closer to Israel, and said in a statement that the US was sending lethal assistance to support Israel’s efforts to respond to Hamas’s attack.

UN secretary-general António Guterres condemned the attack by Hamas and urged “all diplomatic efforts to avoid a wider conflagration”.

In a sign of the potential for the conflict to spiral into a regional conflict, Israel’s military said its artillery had struck areas in Lebanon after Hizbollah said it fired mortars “in solidarity” with the Palestinian people.

Richard Hecht, a spokesperson for Israel’s armed forces, said the military was looking into the Lebanese incident but that it had not been an “all out” attack, and urged Hizbollah, which has a strong presence in southern Lebanon, not to enter the fighting. “I don’t think they will,” he added. “But if they do, we are ready.”

Meanwhile, Iran, Israel’s arch-enemy which backs Hamas and Hizbollah, has expressed its support for the Palestinian Islamist group.

Separately, a policeman shot dead two Israeli tourists in the Egyptian port of Alexandria.

Saturday’s attack, which was launched on the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah and caught Israel’s military off-guard, poses a serious challenge for Netanyahu’s far-right government, with hardliners in important posts pledging to bolster security.

“[Saturday was] one of the most difficult days in our history,” said Zvika Haimovich, former commander of the Israel Air Defense Forces.

“There is no question this was well planned for many, many weeks if not more, well co-ordinated between the terrorist organisations in Gaza — and in my assumption not only in Gaza. I would not be surprised if [Hizbollah and the Iranians] were involved as well,” he added.

Some Israelis compared the assault to the September 11 2001 attacks against the US. “The only thing that I can recall from history for Americans [that is comparable to this] is something between Pearl Harbor and 9/11,” said Yaakov Nagal, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council.

“Some people in Israel are comparing it to the Yom Kippur war [in 1973]. But it’s not the same. It’s much, much worse . . . Yom Kippur involved soldiers. Now we are talking about citizens who can lose their faith in their country.”

Additional reporting by Samer al-Atrush in Dubai


Democratic Alliance condemns Hamas’s unprovoked attack, urges immediate end to violence

From Emma Powell, MP, Shadow Minister of International Relations and Cooperation

The Democratic Alliance (DA) condemns Hamas’ unprovoked attack on Israeli territory today during the religious holiday of Simchat Torah.

The DA urgently calls on the Department of International Relations and Cooperation to unequivocally condemn this unprovoked attack and join the international community in their calls for an immediate end to this rapidly escalating violence.

The DA condemns this senseless violence and all acts of terror against innocent civilians, women and children and calls for aggressors to this conflict to immediately withdraw.

We stand united with the global community in our call for the release of Israeli civilians who are currently being held hostage across several cities in the south of Israel.

The DA continues to support a viable and sustainable two-state solution based on UNSC resolutions 242 and 338. While we recognise the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, we equally recognise the right of the Israeli state to defend herself and her people.

We urge all parties to this historic conflict to return to the negotiating table to find a mutually agreed pathway to lasting peace.

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