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Palestinians take control of an Israeli tank after crossing the border fence with Israel from Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

JERUSALEM: Around dawn Saturday morning, as most of the country slept, thousands of rockets rained down on Israel, as far north as Tel Aviv and as far east as Jerusalem.

Then came the infiltrators, who stormed unsuspecting towns in the south, killing civilians and taking hostages.

The combined land, sea and air attack, was spearheaded by Hamas, the Islamist militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, and supported by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a smaller Gaza-based group that has fought with Israel in the past.

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Israelis are accustomed to conflict, but they had never experienced a day like this.

The attack caught Israel’s vaunted military and intelligence services off guard, and sparked bitter recriminations after months of warnings from security officials about the country’s deteriorating capacity for deterrence.

“Israel was humiliated and defeated today,” wrote Yossi Verter, a columnist in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper. “Even if Gaza is destroyed . . . that will not atone for the most serious security failure since the Yom Kippur war,” he wrote, referring to Israel’s 1973 conflict with its Arab neighbours. That war, too, began with a surprise attack; Israelis had just marked the 50th anniversary of the occasion on Friday.

Palestinian militants drive a captured Israeli military vehicle in Gaza City on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. Image Credit: AP

On Saturday, as air raid sirens wailed nonstop, Israel scrambled to open bomb shelters, call up thousands of reservists and redirect dozens of units to the southern border. All signs pointed to a lengthy and complex military campaign in the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated enclaves in the world.

By 7:25am, the Israeli military declared a “state of alert for war.” Three hours later, Netanyahu confirmed that the country was at war and assured Israelis they would emerge victorious.

While Hamas and Islamic Jihad have routinely used a range of crude and sophisticated rockets to target Israel, the scale and scope of Saturday’s barrage was without parallel.

More than 3,000 rockets were fired at dozens of communities that dot southern Israel, at towns in central Israel and the Negev Desert, and reached as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

22 Israeli communities

More shockingly, Palestinian militants were able to overrun 22 Israeli communities in the south, the military said, including some that remained under siege late Saturday evening. Civilians across south and central Israel were urged to stay in their homes.

Israel’s border with Gaza is one of the most heavily fortified in the region, walled off with a high-tech barrier fence and guarded by military outposts.

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Israeli soldiers look at the remains of a police station which was the site of a battle in Sderot. Image Credit: Reuters

On Saturday, though, footage circulating on social media showed militants using a bulldozer to knock down a section the wall and stream across the border, seemingly without resistance from Israeli forces.

One Palestinian militant was filmed paragliding into Israel. Another was seen riding a motorboat to reach Israel by sea. Others drove motorcycles and trucks through Israeli towns while shooting at civilians.

The Israeli army said it carried out hundreds of airstrikes across Gaza and along the border, using drones and fighter jets.

“Our goals are that all the terrorists will be killed, that all the communities will be rid of terrorists,” the Israeli army said.

“The IDF is striking all Hamas and PIJ targets in the Gaza Strip. Wherever there are Hamas terrorists, they will be found and eliminated - they have no immunity.”

1973 war

Before Saturday, the beginning of the 1973 war was widely regarded as the largest intelligence failure in Israeli history, as Egyptian and Syrian forces killed thousands of Israeli forces in a surprise attack.

The latest assault has stirred dark memories of that conflict, leaving Israelis across the political spectrum wondering how its revered military establishment could have been caught so flat-footed.

For months, military officials had warned that the push by Netanyahu’s far-right government to weaken the judiciary - setting off months of unprecedented protests, including by soldiers - was eroding Israel’s ability to defend itself.

“Israel’s enemies were waiting for Israel to weaken itself, and while the top of the army dealt with the internal discord that penetrated the ranks of the army, they dealt with exploiting the situation and preparing for the next war,” military affairs correspondent Lilach Shoval wrote Saturday in Israel Hayom, a pro-Netanyahu daily.

“The political and military leadership will have to ask themselves how they allowed the internal dispute to weaken Israeli deterrence in a way that made Hamas dare to launch the most murderous attack from the Gaza Strip.”

Netanyahu convened Israeli security leaders, ordered the army to “clean” Israeli communities of Palestinian militants and said reservists would be called on to serve. By Saturday evening, though, he had not instructed his security cabinet to officially declare war, leaving the next steps of the rapidly developing operation unclear.

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Palestinians transport a captured Israeli civilian from Kibbutz Kfar Azza into the Gaza Strip on Saturday. Image Credit: AP

Failure at all levels

Uzi Dayan, a former deputy chief of staff in the Israeli army and a national security adviser for two previous governments, said the assault by Hamas reflected a failure at all levels of Israeli leadership.

The country failed a basic task, he said: “the defence of nation’s borders, both the security fence and penetration of Israeli communities.”

On Saturday evening, active hostage situations were ongoing in two southern communities, where Hamas militants had Israeli civilians trapped in homes and public spaces.

Across the country, family members searched desperately for missing loved ones.

One man, Yoni Asher, told a radio station that his wife and two young daughters, ages 3 and 5, had driven south to his mother-in-law’s home for the holiday weekend. All four of them were missing, and the last location signal from the phone of his wife, Doron, came from Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip.

Adele Raemer, an American Israeli resident of Kibbutz Nirim, near the border with Gaza, was evacuated from her home by the Israeli military Saturday evening after hiding there for more than seven hours.

She was “terrified” the whole time, she said, keeping the air conditioner off and hoping the militants roaming the streets wouldn’t notice she was home.

She said her granddaughters were in a safe room when two Palestinian men attempted to enter the house. They were killed by the girls’ father, she said.

“When it’s rockets, we know how to get to a safe room and be safe,” Raemer said. “This is totally unprecedented.”