Authorities evacuated residents of hard-hit Gaza-area towns devastated by Hamas gunmen Sunday, as security forces continued to battle pockets of terrorists inside Israel while searching for remaining suspects in over a dozen Israeli communities.
Sporadic bursts of gunfire could be heard near Sderot and other towns throughout the day as forces sought to eliminate Hamas gunmen who had breached Israel’s border fence some a day earlier, killing at 700 people and taking another estimated 100 hostages back into Gaza during the unprecedented rampage.
“There are tens of thousands of combat soldiers in the area. We’ll reach each and every community until we kill every terrorist in Israel,” military spokesman Daniel Hagari told reporters.
Hagari said there were still Hamas terrorists in Israel, adding: “We will clean out the area and attack terrorists wherever they are.”
In a statement released after 10 p.m. the Israel Defense Forces said fighting in the south was ongoing, while giving few details.
Forces were “waging continuing battles in towns near the Gaza border, and had killed hundreds of terrorists in towns, along the border and on the coastline over the last 40 hours,” the IDF said.
“Troops are carrying out searches across the south, especially in populated areas, exchanging fire with terrorists and safeguarding the bodies of southern residents and [other] Israelis,” it added.
Information was murky, however, regarding how many terrorists remained in the country and how many civilians remained under threat.
Residents of some 13 communities were ordered to stay in their homes, as the military was yet to declare them free of Hamas gunmen, although by Sunday evening there were no remaining active standoffs.
Major hostage situations at the Sderot police station, in Kibbutz Be’eri, and in Ofakim were resolved in the early hours of Sunday, but isolated gunfights and suspected infiltrations persisted throughout the day. In two reported cases, Israeli civilians suspected of being Hamas gunmen were shot. One was killed.
In Sderot, residents were ordered to remain at home after two separate security incidents, including a suspected infiltration. Residents of Kibbutz Mefalsim were also ordered to remain in their homes until further notice.
Heavy gun battles were reported earlier between Israeli troops and terrorists in Magen, close to the border with the Gaza Strip.
According to Hebrew-language media, the Israel Defense Forces used tanks against the terrorists in the area.
Earlier in the day, Hagari, the military spokesman, said the army’s main mission “for the upcoming 24 hours is to evacuate all residents living around Gaza.”
But he said the evacuation could be carried out only after a proper “scan of the territory” to ensure that no terrorists were present.
The Israel Defense Forces said only civilians from towns adjacent to the border with the Gaza Strip were being evacuated for now.
“Further evacuations will be carried out according to the assessment of the situation,” the IDF said.
The towns included 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.
More than 200 residents of those communities, as well as from the northern Galilee — where officials have also said civilians could be evacuated in anticipation of a possible flareup with the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon — arrived Sunday at Kibbutz Nir David, south of the Sea of Galilee, to be hosted there.
Other communities were also making plans to bring in refugees as Israel readied for an expected wide retaliatory campaign
In an assault of shocking breadth, 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 scrambled to muster a response. At the same time, thousands of rockets were fired at towns in the south and center.
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 enabled such a national catastrophe, with hundreds of terrorists flooding civilian communities in armed convoys.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.