BAGHDAD: The total number of Israelis captured by Hamas in a surprise attack on Israeli towns on Saturday was “several times greater” than dozens, a spokesperson for the armed wing of Hamas said in a recording aired shortly after midnight on Sunday.
The spokesman said those taken captive were spread throughout all areas of the Gaza strip.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Palestinians living near Hamas sites in Gaza to leave as he vowed to turn its hideouts into “rubble” following its surprise attack.
“All the places in which Hamas is based, in this city of evil, all the places Hamas is hiding in, acting from - we’ll turn them into rubble,” he said.
“I’m telling the people of Gaza: get out of there now, because we’re about to act everywhere with all our force,” he said in a brief televised statement.
The United States on Saturday condemned the attacks by “Hamas terrorists” against Israel and vowed to ensure the key US ally has the means to defend itself.
President Joe Biden described the assault as “a terrible tragedy on a human level” and said he had spoken to Netanyahu to underline his support.
“I told him the United States stands with the people of Israel in the face of these terrorist assaults,” Biden said in a televised address from the White House.
“In my administration, support for Israel’s security is rock solid and unwavering.
“We’ll make sure that they have the help their citizens need and they can continue to defend themselves.”
As the attacks threatened to trigger a wider conflict, Biden also warned “this is not a moment for any party hostile to Israel to exploit these attacks to seek advantage. The world is watching.”
Biden stressed that Israel - which the United States has supplied with billions of dollars of arms - has “a right to defend itself” after the Iran-backed Palestinian militant group Hamas launched air, sea and land strikes.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reaffirmed Washington’s commitment, saying “over the coming days the Department of Defense will work to ensure that Israel has what it needs.”
Meanwhile, top US diplomat Antony Blinken spoke with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas - whose West Bank-based Fatah movement is a rival to Hamas - and “called on all leadership in the region to condemn” the attack on Israel.
Former president Donald Trump weighed in, blaming Biden, without evidence, for indirectly funding the attacks.
“These Hamas attacks are a disgrace and Israel has every right to defend itself with overwhelming force,” Trump said in a statement.
“Sadly, American taxpayer dollars helped fund these attacks, which many reports are saying came from the Biden Administration.”
Trump’s allegations reflected Republican claims that $6 billion released last month to Iran as part of a prisoner exchange deal was used to fund the Hamas attack.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Andrew Bates said on social media that “this is a shameful lie in every respect, at a time when both parties should be totally united in supporting Israel’s defense.”
The money “can only be used for verifiable purchases of humanitarian needs like food & medicine,” Bates added, in a fierce pushback against the claims.
Before Saturday’s assault, Biden had been hoping to transform the Middle East - and score a pre-election diplomatic victory - by securing recognition of the Jewish state by Saudi Arabia.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Saturday that “this unprecedented and brutal attack by Hamas is not only supported by Iran, it was designed to stop peace efforts between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
“A peace agreement between those two nations would be a nightmare for Iran and Hamas.”
“It would serve Israel and the world well to respond to this outrage by launching an operation that will destroy the Hamas organization - not just contain it,” he added.