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A tank rolls toward the border with Gaza near the town of Netivot in southern Israel on Sunday. Image Credit: Washington Post

JERUSALEM: Fighting continued in southern Israel early Monday after the government declared war and intensified its bombardment of the Gaza Strip in retaliation for a major surprise attack by Hamas.

Here are some key takeaways from the conflict:

Israel has previously carried out major military campaigns in Lebanon and Gaza that it portrayed as wars, but without a formal declaration.

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The declaration gives the green light for Israel to take “significant military steps” against Hamas.

But a major question was whether Israel would launch a ground assault into Gaza, a move that in the past has brought intensified casualties.

Israel hit more than 800 targets in Gaza by Sunday, its military said. That included airstrikes that levelled much of the town of Beit Hanoun in the enclave’s northeast corner.

Hamas had been using the town as a staging ground for attacks, Israeli Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari told reporters. There was no immediate word on casualties, and most of the community’s population of tens of thousands likely fled before the bombardment.

The leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which participated in Saturday’s attack, said it was holding more than 30 Israelis among dozens of captives in Gaza. He said they would not be released until all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are freed.

What has been response from the US and other nations?

Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the Ford carrier strike group to sail to the Eastern Mediterranean to be ready to assist Israel. The deployment — which also includes a host of ships and warplanes — underscores the concern that the United States has in trying to keep the conflict from growing.

Preliminary reports indicated at least four US citizens were killed in the attacks, and seven more were missing, a US official said.

The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting about the situation and took no immediate action on a US demand that its 15 members condemn the Hamas attack.

Russia’s UN ambassador told The Associated Press that long-stalled negotiations between the two sides need to resume. China’s ambassador said it was important to come back to a two-state solution, where Israel and Palestine live side-by-side.

But US Deputy Ambassador Robert Wood said the ongoing violence needed to be dealt with first.

Germany’s development minister said her country would review its aid for Palestinian areas.

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A plume of smoke rises in the sky of Gaza City during an Israeli airstrike on October 9, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

In Iran — a longtime supporter of Hamas and other militant groups — senior officials praised the incursion. President Ebrahim Raisi spoke by phone with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyah and Islamic Jihad leader Ziad Al Nakhalah, the state-run IRNA news agency reported on Sunday.

Egypt spoke with both sides about a potential ceasefire, but an Egyptian official said Israel was not open to a truce “at this stage.”

A policeman in Egypt opened fire Sunday on Israeli tourists in the city of Alexandria, killing at least two Israelis and one Egyptian, authorities said. The US embassy in Cairo urged Americans in the country to take precautions as the attack could be related to c lashes between Israel and Palestinian militants.

Is anything being done to protect civilians?

The number of displaced Gazans staying at schools converted into shelters jumped by tens of thousands, to some 123,000, the UN said. The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said a school sheltering more than 225 people took a direct hit but there were no casualties amid heavy shelling and airstrikes in different parts of the crowded territory of 2 million people.

Associated Press video on Sunday showed a large crater in the middle of the school.

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Israeli soldiers take cover in Sderot on October 9, 2023, during a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip. Image Credit: AFP

“Schools and other civilian infrastructure, including those sheltering displaced families, must never come under attack,” UNRWA said in a statement.

Ceasefires have stopped major fighting in past rounds of conflict but have always proven shaky. Each agreement in the past has offered a period of calm, but the deeper, underlying issues are rarely addressed, setting the stage for the next round of airstrikes and rockets.

What prompted the attack?

Hamas officials cited long-simmering tensions including a dispute over the sensitive Al Aqsa Mosque sacred to both Muslims and Jews. Competing claims over the site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, have spilled into violence before, including a bloody 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in 2021.

In recent years, Israeli religious nationalists — such as Itamar Ben-Gvir , the national security minister — have increased their visits to the compound. Last week, during the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli activists visited the site, prompting condemnation from Hamas and accusations that Jews were praying there in violation of the status quo agreement.

Hamas also has cited the expansion of Jewish settlements on lands Palestinians claim for a future state and Ben-Gvir’s efforts to toughen restrictions on Palestinian prisoners in Israel.

Tensions escalated with recent violent Palestinian protests. In negotiations with Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations, Hamas has pushed for Israeli concessions that could loosen the 17-year blockade on the enclave and help halt a worsening financial crisis.

What has been happening recently in a divided Israel?

The eruption of violence comes at a difficult time for Israel, which is facing the biggest protests in its history over Netanyahu’s proposal to weaken the Supreme Court while he is on trial for corruption.

The protest movement accuses Netanyahu of making a power grab. That has bitterly divided society and unleashed turmoil within the military, which undreds of reservists threatening to stop volunteering to report for duty in protest.

Reservists are the backbone of the army, and protests within the ranks have raised concerns about cohesion, operational readiness and power of deterrence as it confronts threats on multiple fronts. Netanyahu called up “an extensive mobilization of reserve forces” Saturday.