Tel Aviv, Israel: Israeli soldiers fought to repel Hamas militants Sunday and exchanged fire with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, raising the prospect of a broader regional conflagration a day after an unprecedented surprise attack on southern Israel by Palestinian militants that killed hundreds and left Israelis stunned and reeling.
The Hamas militants broke out of the blockaded Gaza Strip and rampaged through nearby Israeli communities, taking captives, including women, children and the elderly, while Israel's retaliation strikes leveled buildings in Gaza and its prime minister said the country was at war.
Hezbollah struck Israeli positions in a disputed area along the border with Syria’s Golan Heights, and Israel’s military responded with armed drone strikes on Hezbollah targets in a disputed area where the borders of Israel, Lebanon and Syria meet.
On Sunday, the Israeli military said it forces were fighting Hamas incursions in eight places. An Israeli military spokesperson said that two hostage situations had been “resolved,” but did not say whether all the hostages had been rescued alive.
Israel struck 426 targets in Gaza, its miltary said, flattening residential buildings in giant explosions. That included a 14-story tower that held dozens of apartments as well as Hamas offices in central Gaza City. Israeli forces fired a warning just before.
The conflict threatened to escalate with Israel’s vows of retaliation, and attacks by Hezbollah.
Hezbollah fired dozens of rockets and shells on Sunday at three Israeli positions in a disputed area along the country’s border with Syria’s Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
In a televised address Saturday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military will use all of its strength to destroy Hamas’ capabilities. “All the places that Hamas hides in, operates from, we will turn them into ruins,” he added.
“Get out of there now,” he told Gaza residents, who have no way to leave the tiny, overcrowded Mediterranean territory.
Overnight, the Israeli military issued warnings in Arabic to communities near the border with Israel to leave their homes for areas deeper inside the tiny enclave.
Gaza’s 2.3 million people have endured a border blockade, enforced to varying degrees by Israel and Egypt, since Hamas militants seized control in 2007.
Evacuate within 24 hours
Israel's army said Sunday it aims to evacuate all Israelis living close to the Gaza Strip within 24 hours as it deployed tens of thousands of soldiers to fight Palestinian militants who had infiltrated into Israel.
"Our mission for the upcoming 24 hours is to evacuate all residents living around Gaza," military spokesman Daniel Hagari told reporters, adding that fighting was still on to "rescue hostages" held by militants in Israel.
"There are tens of thousands of combat soldiers in the area. We'll reach each and every community till we kill every terrorist in Israel."
Netanyahu vows 'mighty vengeance'
Gunmen from Hamas rampaged through Israeli towns on Saturday, killing at least 300 Israelis and escaping with dozens of hostages in by far the deadliest day of violence in Israel since the Yom Kippur war 50 years ago.
The death toll in the Gaza Strip rose to 313 Sunday, the health ministry in the Palestinian enclave said, as the army carried out air strikes on Hamas targets for the second consecutive day.
The Hamas-controlled ministry said another 1,990 people had been wounded in the fighting that began on Saturday after Hamas fired thousands of rockets into Israel in a surprise dawn assault.
Fighting continued into the night.
"We will take mighty vengeance for this wicked day," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
"Hamas launched a cruel and wicked war. We will win this war but the price is too heavy to bear," he said. "Hamas wants to murder us all. This is an enemy that murders mothers and children in their homes, in their beds. An enemy that abducts elderly, children, teenage girls." Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said the assault that had begun in Gaza would spread to the West Bank and Jerusalem.
By 1:30 a.m. local time (2330 GMT) Israeli troops were still clashing with Hamas fighters in some parts of southern Israel.
In a briefing on social media, an Israeli army spokesperson said the situation was not fully under control.
In Gaza, black smoke, orange flashes and sparks lit the sky. Crowds of mourners carried the bodies of freshly killed militants through the streets, wrapped in green Hamas flags.
Gaza's dead and wounded were carried into crumbling and overcrowded hospitals with severe shortages of medical supplies and equipment. The health ministry said 232 people had been killed and at least 1,700 wounded.
Streets were deserted apart from ambulances racing to the scenes of air strikes. Israel cut the power, plunging the city into darkness.
Militants fire more rockets from Gaza
Before daybreak on Sunday, militants fired more rockets from Gaza, hitting a hospital in the Israeli coastal town of Ashkelon. The hospital sustained damage, said senior hospital official Tal Bergman.
Video provided by Barzilai Medical Center showed a large hole punched into a wall and chunks of debris scattered on the ground of what appeared to be an empty room and a hallway. There was no report of casualties.
Israeli airstrikes in Gaza had intensified after nightfall, flattening residential buildings in giant explosions, including a 14-story tower that held dozens of apartments as well as Hamas offices in central Gaza City. Israeli forces fired a warning just before.
Around 3 a.m., a loudspeaker atop a mosque in Gaza City blared a stark warning to residents of nearby apartment buildings: Evacuate immediately. Just minutes later, an Israeli airstrike reduced one nearby five-story building to ashes.
After one Israeli strike, a Hamas rocket barrage hit four cities, including Tel Aviv and a nearby suburb. Throughout the day, Hamas fired more than 3,500 rockets, the Israeli military said.
Israel will cut off supplies to Gaza
Israel will stop supplying electricity, fuel and goods to Gaza, according to a statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office Saturday night. Much of Gaza was already thrown into darkness by nightfall after electrical supplies from Israel, which supplies almost all of the territories' power, were cut off earlier in the day.
Netanyahu also said the “first phase” of the counter operation had ended, and that Israel had fought off the majority of Hamas militants.
He vowed to continue the offensive “without reservation and without respite."
Ongoing efforts to halt Hamas attacks
US State Secretary Antony Blinken on Saturday (US local time) discussed Hamas' attack on Israel with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, the UK Foreign Secretary and Qatari Prime Minister.
"Spoke with Saudi Foreign Minister @FaisalbinFarhan to discuss today's appalling attacks on Israel. I reiterated Israel's right to self-defence and called for coordinated efforts to achieve an immediate halt to the violent attacks by Hamas terrorists and other militants," Blinken wrote on 'X' on Saturday.
He also discussed the attack with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. "We appreciate Egypt's ongoing efforts and reiterate the urgent need to halt the Hamas attacks," Blinken wrote.
In his talks with the Turkish Foreign Minister, Blinken reiterated Israel's right to defend itself, rescue any hostages, and protect its citizens.
Biden offers support to Netanyahu
Western countries, led by the United States, denounced the attack.
At the White House, President Joe Biden went on national television to say Israel had the right to defend itself and issued a blunt warning to Iran and other nations hostile to Israel. "This is not a moment for any party hostile to Israel to exploit these attacks to seek advantage. The world is watching," he said.
A senior Biden administration official told reporters that the United States was working with other governments to make sure the crisis does not spread and is contained to Gaza.
Washington has been trying to strike a deal that would normalize ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, seen by Israelis as the biggest prize yet in their decades-long quest for Arab recognition. Palestinians fear any such deal could sell out their future dreams of an independent state.
Across the Middle East, there were demonstrations in support of Hamas, with Israeli and U.S. flags set on fire and marchers waving Palestinian flags in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
Long after nightfall, residents had yet to be given the all-clear to go home.
"It's not over because the (army) hasn't said the kibbutz is clear of terrorists," Dani Rahamim told Reuters by telephone from the shelter where he was still hiding in Nahal Oz, close to the Gaza fence. Gunfire had subsided but regular explosions could still be heard.
Hamas said it fired a fresh volley of 150 rockets toward Tel Aviv on Saturday evening in retaliation for an Israeli air strike that took down a high rise with more than 100 apartments.
Gaza has been devastated by four wars and countless skirmishes between Hamas and Israel since the militants seized control of the strip in 2007. But the scenes of violence inside Israel itself were beyond anything seen there even at the height of the Palestinian Intifada uprisings of past decades.
As Israel reeled from a deadly attack by Hamas militants who broke through barriers around Gaza and roamed at will, killing scores of civilians in Israeli towns, defence chiefs faced growing questions over how the disaster could have happened.
A day after the 50th anniversary of the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, when Israeli forces were caught off guard by Syrian and Egyptian tank columns, the military appeared once again to have been surprised by a sudden attack.
"It looks quite similar to what happened at that time," said retired General Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel's National Security Council. "As we can see it, Israel was completely surprised, by a very well coordinated attack," he told a briefing with reporters.
An army spokesman said there would be discussions on the intelligence preparation "down the road" but for the moment the focus was on fighting. "We'll talk about that when we need to talk about it," he told a briefing with reporters.
"This was an intelligence failure; it could not be otherwise," said Jonathan Panikoff, the U.S. government's former deputy national intelligence officer on the Middle East, who is now at the Atlantic Council think tank.
"It was a security failure, undermining what was thought to be an aggressive and successful layered approach toward Gaza by Israel," he said.
For Israelis, images of dead bodies lying in the streets or groups of civilians being driven or marched into captivity in Gaza came as a profound shock.
Backdrop of surging violence
The escalation comes against a backdrop of surging violence between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where a Palestinian authority exercises limited self-rule, opposed by Hamas that wants Israel destroyed.
In the West Bank, there were clashes in several locations on Saturday, with stone throwing youths confronting Israeli troops.
Four Palestinians including a 13-year-old boy were killed.
Palestinian factions called a general strike for Sunday.
Israel itself has been experiencing internal political upheaval, with the most right-wing government in its history attempting to overhaul the judiciary.Israel vows 'mighty vengeance' after surprise attack by Hamas kills hundreds