Israel battles Hamas militants as country’s death toll from mass incursion reaches 600
TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli soldiers battled Hamas fighters in the streets of southern Israel on Sunday and launched retaliation strikes that leveled buildings in Gaza, while in northern Israel a brief exchange of strikes with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group raised fears of a broader conflict.
The fighting raged on more than 24 hours after an unprecedented surprise attack from Gaza, in which Hamas militants, backed by a volley of thousands of rockets, broke through Israel’s security barrier and rampaged through nearby communities. At least 600 people were reportedly killed in Israel — a staggering toll on a scale the country has not experienced in decades — and more than 300 have been killed in Gaza.
The militants also took captives back into the coastal Gaza enclave, including women, children and the elderly, whom they will likely try to trade for thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN’s “State of the Union” that the U.S. is working to verify reports that several Americans were killed or are missing.
The high death toll, the captives and the slow response to the onslaught pointed to a major intelligence failure and undermined the long-held perception that Israel has eyes and ears everywhere in the small, densely populated territory it has controlled for decades.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the country was at war and would exact a heavy price from its enemies. His Security Cabinet officially declared the country at war Sunday, saying the decision formally authorizes “the taking of significant military steps.”
The implications of the announcement were not immediately clear. Israel has carried out major military campaigns over the past four decades in Lebanon and Gaza that it portrayed as wars, but without a formal declaration.