Israeli troops fought to regain control of the desert around the Gaza Strip and evacuate people from the embattled border area on Monday, as the death toll from the conflict with Hamas surged above 1,100 by the third day of clashes.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Israel on Sunday to prepare for a “long and difficult” conflict a day after Palestinian group Hamas launched a surprise assault from Gaza, firing a barrage of rockets and sending a wave of fighters who gunned down civilians and took at least 100 hostages.
More than 700 Israelis have been killed since Hamas launched its large-scale attack, according to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on Monday — its worst losses since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Gaza officials reported at least 413 people killed in the impoverished and blockaded enclave of 2.3 million people, which was hammered by Israeli air strikes on 800 targets ahead of what many feared may be a looming ground invasion.
Tens of thousands of Israeli forces were deployed to battle holdout Hamas fighters in the south, where the bodies of civilians had been found strewn on roads and in town centres.
“The enemy is still on the ground,” military spokesman Daniel Hagari said as a second night fell after the massive opening attack.
The conflict has had a global impact, with several other countries reporting nationals killed, abducted or missing — among them Brazil, Britain, France, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, Nepal, Thailand and Ukraine.
Oil prices soared more than four per cent Monday, sparking concerns about possible supply shocks from the crude-rich region. Brent jumped 4.7pc to $86.65 and West Texas Intermediate was up 4.5pc at $88.39 in early Asian business.
US deploying ships closer to Israel, sends munitions
President Joe Biden ordered US ships and warplanes to move closer to Israel in a show of support on Sunday, while sending fresh military aid after attacks by Hamas.
The Pentagon said it was sending the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford and its accompanying warships to the eastern Mediterranean, while boosting fighter aircraft squadrons in the region.
US Central Command confirmed on Sunday afternoon that ships and planes had begun moving to their new posts.
The White House, which said that “several” American citizens had been killed in the violence, has moved quickly to affirm US backing for Israel after Saturday’s surprise attack from the Gaza Strip, vowing “rock solid” support and warning other parties to stay out of the conflict.
Biden on Sunday spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and “conveyed that additional assistance for the Israeli Defense Forces is now on its way to Israel with more to follow over the coming days,” the White House said.
“The leaders also discussed ongoing efforts to ensure that no enemies of Israel believe they can or should seek advantage from the current situation,” it said in a statement.
The US president further “pledged his full support for the Government and people of Israel in the face of an unprecedented and appalling assault by Hamas terrorists.”
Hamas later accused the United States, a major supplier of arms to Israel, of “actual participation in the aggression against our people” by moving the aircraft carrier.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he was sending forces to “bolster regional deterrence efforts” after discussions with Biden.
As well as the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier, this deployment includes a guided missile cruiser and four guided missile destroyers, Austin said in a statement.
“The United States government will be rapidly providing the Israel Defense Forces with additional equipment and resources, including munitions,” added Austin, who also spoke with his Israeli counterpart on Sunday.
The movement of US ships and planes and the aid to Israel “underscores the United States’ ironclad support for the Israel Defense Forces and the Israeli people”.
The United States on Sunday afternoon led calls for condemnation of a Hamas assault on Israel at the United Nations Security Council.
“I expect to hear from the other Council members very strong condemnation of these heinous acts of terrorism committed against the Israeli people and their government,” senior US diplomat Robert Wood told reporters.
A number of Americans were killed in the violence, a US National Security Council spokesperson said Sunday evening, without giving any further details. “We can confirm the deaths of several US citizens,” the spokesperson said, offering “deepest condolences” to victims and their families.
Earlier Sunday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Americans may also have been taken hostage in the attacks.
He told ABC that “this is a massive terrorist attack that is gunning down Israeli civilians in their towns, in their homes, and as we’ve seen so graphically, literally dragging people across the border with Gaza.
“So, you can imagine the impact this is having throughout Israel. And the world should be revolted at what it has seen.”
State and local authorities throughout the United States — including in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Houston — said there would be increased security presence at US synagogues in the coming days, though there was no specific threat.
Western capitals have condemned the attack by Hamas, which Washington and Brussels consider a terrorist group.
Israel’s foes have praised the assault, including Iran whose President Ebrahim Raisi voiced support when he spoke with the leaders of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group.
Pro-Palestinian protests took place in the United States, Iraq, Pakistan and other countries, while Germany and France were among nations stepping up security around Jewish temples and schools.
In the Egyptian city of Alexandria, a police officer opened fire “at random” on Israeli tourists on Sunday, killing two of them and their Egyptian guide before he was arrested.
Netanyahu — who leads a hard-right coalition government but has received pledges of support from political opponents — has vowed to turn Hamas hideouts “to rubble” and urged Palestinians there to flee.
“We are embarking on a long and difficult war that was forced on us by a murderous Hamas attack,” Netanyahu wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
Israeli attacks have reduced several Gaza residential towers to rubble and destroyed a mosque in Gaza’s Khan Yunis as well as the central bank.
Abducted to Gaza
Shock and dismay gripped Israel after at least 100 citizens were captured by Hamas and abducted into Gaza, with images circulating on social media of bloodied hostages.
Yifat Zailer, 37, said she was horrified to see online video footage from Gaza that showed her cousin and the woman’s children, aged nine months and three years.
“That’s the only confirmation we have,” she told AFP, her voice breaking with emotion, and adding there was no information on her cousin’s husband or her elderly parents.
“After the army took control of the kibbutz, they weren’t at home,” she said. “We assume they were kidnapped … We want to know what their condition is, we want them to return safe. They’re innocent civilians.”
Israel also came under attack from the north when Lebanon’s Hezbollah launched guided missiles and artillery shells Sunday “in solidarity” with the unprecedented Hamas offensive, without causing any casualties.
Israel responded with artillery strikes across the UN-patrolled border.
“We recommend Hezbollah not to come into this,” said army spokesman Richard Hecht. “If they come, we are ready.”
Israel was stunned when Hamas launched their multi-pronged offensive on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, with at least 3,000 rockets raining down as fighters infiltrated towns and kibbutz communities and stormed an outdoor rave where many revellers were shot dead.
Panicked Israelis hiding in their homes told reporters that the fighters were going door to door and shooting civilians or dragging them away.
“Israel was caught flat-footed by the unprecedented attack,” said Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative. “I’ve heard multiple comparisons to 9/11, and many Israelis are struggling to understand how this could have happened.”
‘We will not give up’
Hamas has labelled its attack “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood” and called on “resistance fighters in the West Bank” and “Arab and Islamic nations” to join the battle.
Its attack came half a century after the outbreak of the 1973 conflict called the Yom Kippur War in Israel, sparking bitter recriminations for what was widely seen as an enormous intelligence failure.
“There was a very bad failure here,” said Sderot resident Yaakov Shoshani, 70. “The Yom Kippur War was small compared to it, and I was a soldier in the Yom Kippur War.” He recalled the terror of the attack on the town near Gaza.
“I held a kitchen knife and a large screwdriver, and I told my wife that, if something happens, to make sure to read the Kaddish (prayer) over me, if you stay alive,” he said.
“And so we stayed close to each other at home, shut everything and turned off the lights.”
Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh has predicted “victory” and vowed to press ahead with “the battle to liberate our land and our prisoners languishing in occupation prisons”.
An Israeli survivor of the attack on Sderot, Yitzhak, 67, said he now expected the army to “conquer Gaza house by house, clean the area there properly, and not leave Gaza until they get the very last rocket out of the ground”.
Many Gaza residents voiced defiance. “We will not give up, and we are here to stay,” said Mohammed Saqallah, 23. “This is our land, and we will not abandon our land.”