GAZA – At least 198 people have been killed and 1,610 wounded in the Palestinian enclave of Gaza during Israel’s retaliation after a deadly multi-pronged attack by Hamas forces into Israel, the health ministry says.
The growing casualty toll on Saturday came after the Palestinian group running the Gaza Strip launched the largest attack on Israel in years, infiltrating areas in the south of the country following a barrage of thousands of rockets fired from the besieged territory.
Israel’s national rescue service, Magen David Adom, said at least 40 people have been killed as hospitals in Israel are treating hundreds of wounded people, including dozens in critical condition. Local media reported the number has now risen to at least 100 dead.
Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant warned Hamas it made a “grave mistake” in launching the attack, which began at 6:30am local time (03:30 GMT) and involved barrages of rockets fired from multiple locations in Gaza as well as fighters infiltrating Israel by land, sea and air.
“Citizens of Israel, we are at war,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video message from military headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Later on Saturday, Israel’s military said it launched air raids on Gaza in response to the attack.
“Dozens of [Israeli military] fighter jets are currently striking a number of targets belonging to the Hamas terrorist organisation in the Gaza Strip,” the Israeli military said.
Mohammed Deif, a senior Hamas military commander, said the rocket fire marked the start of “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood”, and he called on Palestinians everywhere to fight the Israeli occupation.
“We’ve decided to say enough is enough,” Deif said as he urged all Palestinians to confront Israel. “This is the day of the greatest battle to end the last occupation on Earth,” he said in an audio message.
Israel’s military told Israelis living around the Gaza Strip to stay in their homes and warned Hamas would pay a “heavy price for its actions”.
Israeli media reported Palestinian fighters opened fire on passers-by in the town of Sderot, in southern Israel, and footage circulating on social media appeared to show uniformed Palestinians engaged in clashes in the border area.
Another video on social media appeared to show a burning Israeli tank surrounded by jubilant Palestinians.
Israeli warplanes started to pound locations in Gaza – in what the military called “Operation Iron Swords” – and Israeli soldiers were engaged in ground fighting in several locations around the besieged Palestinian enclave.
“Right now we’re fighting. We’re fighting in certain locations around the Gaza Strip … our forces are now fighting on the ground,” Israel’s army spokesman Richard Hecht told reporters.
Witnesses in Gaza heard loud explosions.
Enas Keshta, a resident of Rafah in southern Gaza, said Palestinians are looking at a “tough night” ahead as Israeli attacks on the blockaded enclave continue.
“The situation here in Gaza is not good at all. I can assure you that we are not ready, and we have a tough night waiting for us,” she told Al Jazeera. “No place is safe.”
Widespread shock and fear abounds in Gaza.
“We have been as surprised and frightened as the [occupation] since the operation began,” said Munir Nasser, a Gaza grocery vendor. “We haven’t seen footage of Palestinians breaching the occupied towns and villages beyond the barriers like this before.”