The Israeli Air Force pounded Gaza with airstrikes overnight Sunday as part of its effort to “devastate the capabilities of the Hamas terror group,” two days after the terror group unleashed carnage on an unprecedented scale in Israel, killing at least 700 civilians and security personnel in the deadliest single day in the nation’s history.
Among the 500 targets hit overnight were eight Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad war rooms; a building housing Hamas operatives; several high-rise towers housing Hamas assets; a command center used by a senior official in Hamas’s naval forces; an “operational asset used by Hamas” located within a mosque in Jabaliya; an asset used by the terror group for intelligence; and three tunnels in the Beit Hanoun area in northern Gaza.
Israel formally declared a state of war on Sunday as the death toll from the massive Hamas attack rose above 700 and was expected to rise further, with the fate of over a hundred people abducted and taken into the Gaza Strip still unclear.
The Government Press Office, a body that operates under the Prime Minister’s Office, said that the number of hostages in Gaza was over 100. Hamas and Islamic Jihad boasted Sunday night that they were holding some 130 Israeli hostages, claiming this included high-ranking army officials.
ZAKA, a volunteer group that handles human remains after terror attacks and other disasters, announced Sunday night that among the dead were some 260 mostly young Israelis mowed down by Hamas gunmen who invaded an outdoor music festival in southern Israel.
In a shocking assault, Hamas gunmen rolled into as many as 22 locations in southern Israel on Saturday morning, including towns and smaller communities as far as 15 miles (24 kilometers) from the Gaza border. In some places, they roamed for hours, gunning down civilians and soldiers as Israel’s military, caught entirely off guard, scrambled to muster a response. At the same time, thousands of rockets were fired at towns in the south and center of the country.
Gun battles between military forces and holed-up terrorists raged throughout Saturday, with the army slowly recovering from its shock and killing and capturing numerous attackers, after long hours in which the gunmen ravaged towns under their control. By Monday morning there were fewer such battles, but the army said there were still pockets of terrorists in the area, including dozens who had infiltrated overnight, and efforts to completely secure the communities were ongoing.
The Israel Defense Forces’ top spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said Monday morning that fighting was ongoing in and near Kfar Aza, Be’eri, Nirim, Shaar Hanegev, Nir Oz, Alumim and Holit. Some of the terrorists have been in Israel since the preliminary attack on Saturday, while others crossed the border over the past two days.
Hagari said that overnight, some 70 terrorists infiltrated Be’eri. Most of them were killed in battle with IDF troops, but others were still hiding in homes in the kibbutz.
In Kfar Aza, seven terrorists were identified in the town’s vicinity, and the mouth of a tunnel near the kibbutz was found as well, Hagari said.
While it was known that the terrorists infiltrated by land, sea, and air, this is the first tunnel found in the current conflict. Israel had invested millions of dollars in an advanced underground wall of sensors and obstacles that was supposed to make tunneling into the country impossible.
Six terrorists were identified near Kibbutz Nirim, and four in Alumim, Hagari added.
Israel vowed to take the fight back to Hamas; Israeli jets and helicopter gunships hit over 1,148 sites in Gaza since Saturday, as reserves troops girded for a wide offensive against Gaza-based terrorists. An American aircraft carrier, accompanied by fighter jets and gunboats, steamed toward the region in a show of support for Israel’s war effort as the United States offered unwavering support.
The dead included at least 73 soldiers, including top officers, and 34 police officers.
Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer said he understood the actual death toll to be significantly higher. “There will probably be more hundreds, several hundred more,” he said.
As remains of the dead were recovered and taken for identification, desperate parents were among those who lined up at a missing person’s center that was set up near Ben Gurion Airport on Saturday evening. Relatives were told to bring items such as toothbrushes that could contain DNA.
The number of wounded also continued to tick upward throughout the day. The Health Ministry said late Sunday that 2,382 people were treated at hospitals, including 22 people in critical condition and hundreds more also fighting for their lives.
Ongoing threat of rockets, gunmen
Alongside the invasion, carried out by terrorists in convoys of pickup trucks and motorbikes as well as speedboats and motorized gliders, Gazan terrorists fired thousands of rockets at Israel, hitting homes in Tel Aviv and elsewhere. Sunday saw the rocket fire largely subside, with sporadic barrages targeting areas closer to the Gaza Strip throughout the day. Moments before midnight, however, a large bombardment targeted areas as far north as Rishon Lezion and Rehovot, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Gaza. While many rockets were downed by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, direct hits were recorded on homes and inside populated areas including in Netivot, Ashkelon and Sderot.
In Ashkelon, one rocket hit a home, moderately wounding an eight-year-old boy.
The military said it was evacuating civilians from towns adjacent to the border with the Gaza Strip, while searching the area for terrorists still in Israeli territory.
The towns include Nahal Oz, Erez, Nir Am, Mefalsim, Kfar Aza, Gevim, Or Haner, Ibim, Netiv Ha’asara, Yad Mordechai, Karmia, Zikim, Kerem Shalom, Kissufim, Holit, Sufa, Nirim, Nir Oz, Ein Hashlosha, Nir Yitzhak, Be’eri, Magen, Re’im, Sa’ad, and Alumim.
“Further evacuations will be carried out according to the assessment of the situation,” the IDF said.
Fears that terrorists could still be roaming free throughout the country remained rampant, keeping much of the country on edge.
Police said they had “neutralized” a car with Palestinian terrorists on the Route 4 highway as it sped northward from Gaza, before veering off into a field near Ashkelon. But later reports indicated that the driver had been an Israeli and the chase a tragic case of mistaken identity.
In Sderot, where terrorists managed to overrun a police station Saturday, a resident riding an all-terrain vehicle was shot and wounded by Israeli forces after refusing to halt, the municipality said.
Distraught families demand information
The ongoing fighting and informational fog compounded tough questions about the various failures that had allowed Gazan terrorists to carry out the onslaught seemingly unimpeded. Relatives of those missing or thought kidnapped or killed said they felt abandoned by authorities, with many saying they had yet to be contacted by officials at all.
The current situation is “unbelievable… it’s impossible to understand. We are demanding this government give us answers. We know they won’t all be happy answers,” Uri David, whose two daughters are missing, said at a press conference called by relatives seeking answers.
That sense of chaotic and lackluster management of the disaster was a widespread sentiment on Saturday, when numerous besieged residents in overrun communities made urgent whispered pleas for help in phone calls to loved ones and authorities, begging for rescue that in many cases did not arrive for long hours, as the army struggled to mount a response.
The scenes of chaos and suffering and the prolonged failure to gain control of the situation have shocked and outraged the nation, and sparked demands for answers on the many failures of intelligence, deployment, and policy that had allowed such a national catastrophe to occur.
Social media was filled with horrifying videos of men, women and children being carried into the Strip, many of them appearing to have been abused. There were also videos published of dead Israelis taken, including soldiers, the bodies of some of whom were paraded in the streets.
The Israel Defense Forces said it had established a situation room to focus on putting together accurate information regarding the Israeli hostages, with Hamas and Islamic Jihad claiming to be holding at least 130 people.
The IDF said the team will compile a “situational picture” for locating the captives, both soldiers and civilians.
“Amid all the complexity and uncertainty, it is necessary to issue reliable messages as quickly as possible. Some families have already received messages about their loved ones,” the IDF said.
And the government announced Sunday that Gal Hirsch, a reservist brigadier-general who commanded the 91st Division in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, would be its point man on missing and kidnapped citizens.
An Egyptian official said Israel had 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 Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, which also took part in the incursion, to seek information. Egypt has often mediated between the two sides in the past.
However, both Israel and Hamas denied that talks over the hostages were taking place.
“Right now, we are fighting terrorists on Israeli territory. We’re not involved in any talks about the hostages right now,” an official told The Times of Israel.
The existence of Israeli hostages in Gaza likely complicated Israeli plans for a widescale counterassault on Gaza. Nonetheless, Israeli jets pounded Hamas and Islamic Jihad positions throughout the Strip, intensifying its air campaign a day after Netanyahu vowed on Saturday to “avenge this black day.”
Duped by Hamas
A source close to Hamas told Reuters Sunday night that the terror organization had conducted a years-long campaign to fool Israel into thinking the group did not desire armed conflict and could be placated with economic incentives to maintain relative calm.
“Hamas gave Israel the impression that it was not ready for a fight,” the source told the agency. “Hamas used an unprecedented intelligence tactic to mislead Israel over the last months, by giving a public impression that it was not willing to go into a fight or confrontation with Israel while preparing for this massive operation.”
He said that as part of its preparations, the terror organization built a mock Israeli community to train in. “Israel surely saw them but they were convinced that Hamas wasn’t keen on getting into a confrontation,” he said.
“Hamas was able to build a whole image that it was not ready for a military adventure against Israel,” the source added.
Former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror told Reuters that some countries allied with the Jewish state had bought into the lie, telling Jerusalem that Hamas was showing “more responsibility.”
“We stupidly began to believe that it was true,” he said. “So, we made a mistake. We are not going to make this mistake again and we will destroy Hamas, slowly but surely.”
A state of war
Sites targeted by Israeli Air Force fighter jets and drones Sunday included headquarters used by the terror groups to manage the fighting.
The Israeli Navy also foiled attempts by terrorists to infiltrate into Israel via the sea, killing dozens of terrorists.
A number of foreign nationals and dual citizens were among those feared kidnapped or killed, including victims from the US, UK, France, Germany, Thailand, Mexico, Nepal and elsewhere.
A day after announcing that Israel would carry out a broad retaliatory campaign in Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was largely silent on Sunday. His office announced Sunday afternoon that ministers had approved formally declaring war the night before, and shortly afterward the IDF announced that it was intensifying strikes on Gaza.
The Hamas-run health ministry in the Gaza Strip said 436 Palestinians had been killed and another 2,300 had been wounded in the Gaza Strip. Israel said it killed at least 425 Palestinian terrorists in Gaza and hundreds more in Israeli territory. Another 11 Palestinians were reported killed in West Bank unrest, though there was little information about those clashes, with efforts mainly concentrated in the south.
Late Sunday, the IDF said an elite naval commando unit had captured the deputy commander of the southern division of the Hamas naval force in Gaza, Muhammad Abu Ghali.
In the north, a brief flare-up with the Hezbollah terror group that saw mortar fire on border areas was swiftly extinguished. But it brought with it fears of a wider conflagration, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant ordered that plans be drawn up for a possible evacuation of northern towns should the Iranian proxy group get involved.
The military was engaged in a mass call-up of hundreds of thousands of reserve soldiers amid preparations for what leaders promised would be an unprecedented military response, with many forces diverted toward the south and also in the north.
Israel was receiving broad support from Western governments and leaders, many of whom condemned the Hamas assault and the targeting and systematic abduction of civilians.