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Israel-Gaza: Death toll soars above 1,100 in war with Hamas

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Israel on Sunday to prepare for a 'long and difficult' conflict after Palestinian militant group Hamas launched a surprise assault from Gaza.

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 war with Hamas surged above 1,100 by the third day of clashes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu steeled the shocked and grieving nation for a “long and difficult” war after Hamas fired a barrage of rockets at Israel on Saturday and sent a wave of fighters who gunned down civilians and took at least 100 hostages.

The bloody escalation sharply heightened Middle East tensions and killed more than 600 people on the Israeli side, the country’s worst losses since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war when it came under attack from a coalition led by Egypt and Syria.

“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.”

In Gaza – which was hammered by Israeli air strikes on 800 targets ahead of what many feared may be a looming ground invasion – officials reported at least 413 deaths, with thousands more wounded across the war zone.

US President Joe Biden ordered “additional support for Israel in the face of this unprecedented terrorist assault by Hamas,” the White House said.

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US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Washington “will be rapidly providing the Israel Defense Forces with additional equipment and resources, including munitions”.

Austin also said he had directed the USS Gerald R. Ford, an aircraft carrier, and its accompanying warships to the eastern Mediterranean, and that Washington was augmenting fighter aircraft squadrons in the region.

Several foreign countries have reported nationals killed, abducted or missing in the fighting, among them Brazil, Britain, France, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, Nepal, Thailand, Ukraine and the United States.

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,” said military spokesman Daniel Hagari as a second night fell after the attack, adding that Israel was reinforcing its military strength near the Gaza Strip.

Gun battles raged as the Israeli army sought to secure desert regions near the coastal enclave, rescue Israeli hostages and evacuate all areas near Gaza.

“We’ll reach each and every community until we kill every terrorist in Israel,” vowed Hagari, a day after Hamas fighters launched their shock offensive and surged into Israel using vehicles, boats and motorised paragliders.

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, and distraught relatives pleading for the state to rescue them.

Yifat Zailer, 37, said she was horrified to see online video footage from Gaza that showed her female cousin and the woman’s children, aged nine months and three years.

“That’s the only confirmation we have,” she told AFP, her voicing breaking with emotion, and adding there was no information on her cousin’s husband and 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.”

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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, raining down at least 3,000 rockets as fighters infiltrated towns and kibbutz communities and stormed an outdoor rave party.

Panicked Israeli residents phoned media outlets as they hid in their homes from militants going door to door and shooting civilians or dragging them away.

‘No respite’

Global concern has mounted, with Western capitals condemning 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 Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders.

Anti-Israel protests have flared in Iraq, Pakistan and some other majority Muslim 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 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 during Israel’s national emergency – 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, pledging no “respite”.

Schools were closed nationwide and many flights were cancelled to Ben Gurion airport amid the fighting, as the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange’s main TA-35 index fell 6.47 percent on Sunday.

‘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 on 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 their 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.”

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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”.

Hamas said Saturday it had fired 5,000 rockets, while Israel reported some 3,000 incoming projectiles, as Hamas ground forces launched their assault on nearby israeli communities.

Sderot resident 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.”

Israeli attacks have reduced several Gaza residential towers to rubble, and another strike completely destroyed a mosque in Gaza’s Khan Yunis.

Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, leading to Israel’s blockade of the impoverished enclave of 2.3 million people, and the two sides have fought several wars since.

Many Gaza residents voiced defiance. “We will not give up, and we are here to stay,” said Mohammed Saq Allah, 23. “This is our land, and we will not abandon our land.”

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