Israel Vows 'Mighty Vengeance' After Hamas Kills More Than 600, Abducts More Than 100 Men, Women, Children

(Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

JERUSALEM/GAZA/SDEROT—Gunmen from the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas rampaged through Israeli towns on Saturday, killing hundreds of people and escaping with dozens of hostages in by far the deadliest day of violence in the country since the Yom Kippur war 50 years ago.

"We will take mighty vengeance for this wicked day," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an address to the nation on Saturday night.

"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."

More than 600 Israelis have been killed since the start of the surprise infiltration, Israeli officials and ZAKA, a volunteer group that handles human remains after terror attacks, on Sunday told Hebrew-language media. According to Israel's Health Ministry, the number of wounded treated in Israeli hospitals reached 2,156, including 20 in critical condition and 338 seriously wounded.

Israel's government on Sunday confirmed at least 100 Israelis are being held captive in Gaza. Social media were filled with photos and videos of Israeli soldiers and civilians, including women, children, and the elderly, being executed, abused, abducted, and held hostage by Hamas in Gaza.

A bombardment of Israel with thousands of rockets from Gaza continued on Sunday, forcing Israelis across the country to stay indoors and retreat to shelters.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said the assault that had begun in Gaza, a narrow strip that is home to 2.3 million Palestinians, would spread to the West Bank and Jerusalem.

In a speech, Haniyeh cited unfounded conspiracy theories that Israel seeks to change the status quo at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque, the continuation of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on Gaza, and Israeli normalization with countries in the region. "How many times have we warned you that the Palestinian people have been living in refugee camps for 75 years, and you refuse to recognize the rights of our people?"

Bodies of Israeli civilians were strewn across the streets of Sderot in southern Israel, near Gaza, surrounded by broken glass. The bodies of a man and woman were sprawled across the front seats of a car.

"I went out, I saw loads of bodies of terrorists, civilians, cars shot up. A sea of bodies, inside Sderot along the road, other places, loads of bodies," said Shlomi from Sderot.

Terrified Israelis, barricaded in safe rooms, recounted their plight by phone on live television.

Esther Borochov, who fled a dance rave party attacked by the gunmen, told Reuters she survived by playing dead in a car after the driver trying to help her escape was shot point blank.

"I couldn't move my legs," she told Reuters at the hospital. "Soldiers came and took us away to the bushes."

Senior military officers were among those killed in fighting near Gaza, the Israeli military said.

Israeli troops clashed with Hamas fighters throughout the night in some parts of southern Israel. In a briefing on social media, an Israeli army spokesperson said the situation was not fully under control.

The Israeli prime minister's office said the security cabinet had approved steps to destroy the military and governmental capabilities of Hamas and Islamic Jihad "for many years", including cutting electricity and fuel supplies and the entry of goods into Gaza.

In Gaza, black smoke, orange flashes, and sparks lit the sky from explosions. Israeli drones could be heard overhead. Earlier, crowds of mourners had carried the bodies of 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 Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza said on Sunday that 370 Palestinians have been killed and another 2,200 have been wounded in the territory. The Israeli army said it killed at least 400 Palestinian terrorists both in Israel and in strikes in Gaza.

Streets were deserted apart from ambulances racing to the scenes of air strikes. Israel cut the power, plunging the city into darkness.

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 countries 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.

The Hezbollah terrorist group, like Hamas, dedicated to Israel's destruction, launched mortar shells at Israeli military sites on the Lebanon border on Sunday morning in "solidarity" with the "Palestinian resistance." The Israeli army responded with artillery fire and a drone strike on a Hezbollah tent. No injuries were reported.

The United States 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 agreement could sell out their dreams of an independent state.

Osama Hamdan, the leader of Hamas in Lebanon, told Reuters that Saturday's operation should make Arab states realize that accepting Israeli security demands would not bring peace.

"For those who want stability and peace in the region, the starting point must be to end the Israeli occupation," he said. "Some [Arab states] unfortunately started imagining that Israel could be the gateway for America to defend their security."

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.

The Hamas attack was praised by Iran and by Hezbollah, Iran's Lebanese allies.

Long after nightfall, residents had not been 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 a shelter where he was hiding in Nahal Oz, close to the Gaza fence. Gunfire had subsided but regular explosions could still be heard.

Hamas deputy chief Saleh al-Arouri told Al Jazeera that the group was holding a large number of Israeli captives, including senior officials. He said Hamas had enough captives to make Israel free all Palestinians in its jails.

Hamas, which advocates Israel's destruction, said the attack was retaliation for what it said were Israel's escalated attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and against Palestinians in Israeli prisons.

"This is the day of the greatest battle to end the last occupation on earth," Hamas military commander Mohammad Deif said, announcing the start of the operation in a broadcast on Hamas media and calling on Palestinians everywhere to fight.

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 exceeded anything there even at the height of the Palestinian Intifada uprisings of past decades.

Israel was caught completely off guard by Hamas's assault, marking one of the worst intelligence failures in Israel's history. The Jewish state has seen months of internal political strife and increased violence in the West Bank, where a Palestinian authority exercises limited self-rule, opposed by Hamas. It was one of the worst in Israel's history, a shock to a nation that boasts of its intensive infiltration and monitoring of militants.

Scores of Palestinians were killed and hundreds wounded in clashes at Gaza's border into Israel, where fighters captured the crossing point and tore down fences. Some of the dead were civilians, among crowds that attempted to cross into Israel through the damaged gates.

"We are afraid," a Palestinian woman, Amal Abu Daqqa, told Reuters as she left her house in Khan Younis.

There were clashes in several locations in the West Bank 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.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, and Ammar Anwar in Sderot; additional reporting by Henriette Chacar, Emily Rose, and Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; writing by James Mackenzie, Tom Perry, Michael Georgy, Peter Graff, and Patricia Zengerle; editing by Alex Richardson, Nick Macfie, Diane Craft, and Lisa Shumaker)

Published under: Gaza , Hamas , Israel