Israel Formally Declares War against Hamas as More Than 1,000 Killed on Both Sides

Photo for The Washington Post by Loay Ayyoub
An Israeli strike destroys the Palestine Tower in the Rimal neighborhood in the central Gaza Strip on Saturday.

SDEROT, Israel – Israel formally declared war against the Palestinian militant group Hamas on Sunday as it reeled from a surprise attack that killed more than 700 people, opening the way for a major escalation in fighting that already threatened to engulf the region. A swelling counterattack by Israeli forces in Gaza also killed more than 400 people, including 78 children, as residents braced for a more punishing campaign that some feared would include an Israeli ground invasion.

The vote for war by Israel’s cabinet could signal a wider operation – it allows the government to expand military mobilization and deploy a more lethal range of military options. U.S. officials said Sunday that they expected Israel to launch a ground incursion into Gaza in the next 24 to 48 hours, according to people familiar with the matter.

Israel also requested heightened cooperation with the United States on intelligence-sharing related to southern Lebanon, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military matters. Earlier Sunday, Israeli forces and Lebanese militants traded fire across the border, with the powerful armed group Hezbollah claiming responsibility for the artillery and missile attacks.

“Our hearts are with you. Our minds are with you. Our souls are with you. Our history and guns and our rockets are with you,” top Hezbollah official Hashem Safieddine said at a rally in Beirut on Sunday, referring to Hamas.

Hezbollah’s entrance injected a combustible new element into the fighting, raising the specter of a conflagration that Israel has feared for decades: a multifront attack by Arab enemies bent on wiping out the Jewish state.

Saturday’s attack, which saw Palestinian gunmen infiltrate Israel at multiple points, caught the country’s military and intelligence services off guard. The extent of the carnage was coming into focus Sunday: at least 700 people were dead inside Israel and more than 2,000 wounded. Dozens more were taken hostage and transferred to the Gaza Strip, where local health authorities said late Sunday that 413 people had been killed so far in Israeli military strikes.

Foreign nationals were among those killed and captured in Israel. Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, told “Fox & Friends” on Sunday that “there are dozens, dozens, okay, of Americans, Israeli Americans, holding American citizenship who are held hostage now in Gaza.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN’s “State of the Union” that the Biden administration was working to verify reports that Americans were dead or missing.

President Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday and reiterated his “unreserved support,” according to the Israeli government. Biden directed additional support for Israel “in the face of this unprecedented terrorist assault by Hamas,” the White House said.

“The United States government will be rapidly providing the Israel Defense Forces with additional equipment and resources, including munitions,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement Sunday, adding that the first assistance would arrive in Israel in the coming days.

Austin also said he directed the movement of the USS Gerald R. Ford Carrier Strike Group to the eastern Mediterranean to “bolster regional deterrence efforts.”

At least 10 locations in southern Israel, including residential neighborhoods and military bases, remained active battle zones on Sunday afternoon, more than 24 hours after the start of one of the grisliest episodes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The militants that crossed into Israel and overran the communities seemed intent on taking hostages, and hundreds were held in their homes or in public spaces while many more were taken across the border into the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s embassy in Washington said Sunday that “dozens” of Israelis were captured in the incursion, and Israel’s military said the hostages included civilians. The spokesman for Hamas’s military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, acknowledged that Hamas had captured and relocated “tens” of Israeli soldiers and officers, adding on Telegram that they had been “safeguarded in safe locations and in the resistance’s tunnels.”

Hamas famously has tunnels running from Gaza into Israel, which Israel dubs “a vast underground city with dozens of access points.” Israel is particularly sensitive to hostage-taking and has in the past released hundreds of prisoners of war in exchange for just one or two of its own – a policy that Hamas has identified as a “vulnerability,” according to Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House.

Hamas has not yet made any demands for the hostages’ release, but militants could spread them out at sites to dissuade Israel from retaliating with strikes, Mekelberg said.

One couple kidnapped from an all-night trance party near Gaza on Saturday spent hours hiding from armed gunmen in bushes before being captured, according to a friend.

Noa Argamani, 25, and her 29-year-old boyfriend Avinatan Or were among hundreds of revelers at the rave just a few miles from the fence that edges the Gaza Strip when rocket fire began in the early hours of the morning, said Shlomit Marciano, also 25.

The area was later overrun by gunmen, who shot at the fleeing partygoers. Or had messaged Argamani’s father at about 10 a.m. to say they were safe, but that was the last they were heard from until a video was posted online showing Argamani screaming as she was separated from her boyfriend and driven off on a motorcycle.

A later video showed Argamani sitting on cushions in a room with a tiled floor, sipping from a bottle of water. “We know she’s alive from the video, but there are hundreds of people missing,” Marciano said.

Israeli authorities said Sunday they were working to rescue hostages.

“Israel is no stranger to hostage situations and we have specially trained negotiators and rescuers in place,” said Masha Michelson, deputy head of the Israel Defense Forces’ international press department.

Michelson said hundreds of thousands of Israeli soldiers had been deployed to southern and northern Israel over the past day. The army is still working to “clean” the area, going from “home to home, and from trash can to trash can, all of which takes an enormous amount of time,” Michelson said.

In southern Israel, along Gaza’s northeastern edge, abandoned cars and bodies lined the road. Many of the bodies appeared to belong to Palestinian militants.

On the edge of Be’eri, a kibbutz in southern Israel, soldiers led families out on foot. Two elderly residents had been hiding in their bomb shelter since Saturday morning.

“The gunfire was unlike anything I had ever heard,” said Ambily, a 37-year-old caregiver who hid with the couple as gunmen overran Be’eri early Saturday morning. The Washington Post did not use her last name out of concern for her security. “It was like something I had only heard before on television or in the movies.”

Retaliatory airstrikes by Israel pummeled the Gaza Strip overnight, and Netanyahu vowed to turn “all of the places which Hamas is deployed, hiding and operating in . . . into rubble.”

“I say to the residents of Gaza: Leave now because we will operate forcefully everywhere,” he said in a televised statement late Saturday.

But in the densely populated enclave of some 2 million people that has been subjected since 2007 to an Israeli blockade, there are few places to turn.

About a half-million people live in areas along the border that Israeli forces warned would be theaters for fighting, according to Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City. That’s too many to take refuge with family or friends elsewhere in Gaza, he said – and no part of Gaza is really safe.

“It was bombing all night long,” Abusada said, adding that it was a “very terrible day yesterday and last night” in his relatively upscale neighborhood of Rimal on Gaza’s western edge.

Conditions in Gaza, already difficult, are becoming dire. After the Israeli government cut electricity to the area on Saturday night in retaliation for the Hamas attack, Gazans have been relying on the local power station, which produces only enough for a few hours of electricity per day, Abusada said.

“We are preparing for the worst. We know that there will be very tough days ahead of us,” Abusada said. “But we have been in those circumstances many times in the past 16 years since Hamas has taken over the Gaza Strip. And in the end, it hasn’t deterred Hamas, it hasn’t stopped Hamas or the Palestinian resistance from fighting Israel.”

The fighting has begun to have ripple effects across the region.

In Alexandria, Egypt, two Israeli tourists and their Egyptian guide were shot and killed, Israel’s Foreign Ministry said, blaming the attack on a “local individual.” A third Israeli national was hurt in the shooting and was “in moderate condition,” the ministry added.

Egyptian media outlets reported that the gunman was an Egyptian policeman, who shot the group as they toured Pompey’s Pillar, an ancient Roman site. State-owned newspaper Al-Ahram said that the man was in custody and is under investigation.

Egypt has engaged in a flurry of diplomacy since the Hamas attack began, with top officials speaking with counterparts in Europe and the United States in an effort to again position the country as a mediator between Israel and Palestinian factions. Cairo has successfully brokered cease-fires during past bouts of fighting.

The shooting in Alexandria served as an awkward reminder to Egyptian officials of strong anti-Israel sentiment among Arab populations, including their own.

Beyond the Middle East, Germany is evaluating its support for Palestinian projects after the Hamas-led incursion, according to Development Minister Svenja Schulze. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he will discuss the situation with Western and Middle Eastern leaders Sunday.

Hamas leaders said Saturday’s operation came in response to a series of provocative moves by Israelis, including the storming of the al-Aqsa Mosque complex in East Jerusalem – a site known to Jews as the Temple Mount – by ultranationalist Israeli settlers.

Leaders in Israel’s far-right government have pushed for a greater Jewish presence at the site, which holds religious significance for Jews, Muslims and Christians. It has long been a flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over Jerusalem, and a symbol of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.

The events of the weekend come in the context of 75 years of Israeli occupation of the Palestinians. For Palestinians and supporters across the Middle East who poured into the streets in Tehran; Beirut; Istanbul and Sanaa, Yemen, to celebrate the Hamas attack, the violence was a response to decades of Israeli restrictions, harassment and violence against Palestinians living under Israeli control.

This sentiment raises pressure on groups such as Hezbollah that have largely stayed out of the fray of recent attacks from Lebanon into Israel by Palestinian militants, seeking to avoid an escalation with Israel.

But the volley of rockets, along with fiery comments from group leaders Sunday, indicated that Hezbollah does not intend to remain on the sidelines.

Mohanad Hage Ali, a Beirut-based fellow with the Carnegie Middle East Center, said it would be difficult for Hezbollah to appear disengaged from the current conflict in Gaza, especially after Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, has taken in members of Hamas’s key leadership lately.

“When the impact on Israel is as big [as today’s], it makes less sense to be risk-averse and compartmentalize things,” he said. “I think this attack reshuffles the cards, big time.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Loay Ayyoub
A building destroyed in an Israeli airstrike, with smoke still rising, in Burj Al-Aklouk in Gaza on Sunday.