ASHKELON, Israel — Israel was plunged into chaos Saturday after the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched a deadly land, air and sea attack inside the country, with fighters infiltrating the southern border and firing a massive barrage of rockets from the Gaza Strip.
"We are in a war," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared in a video on social media. He ordered strikes on Gaza and called for an "extensive reserve mobilization" as the nation responds to the unprecedented incursion.
Over 200 Israelis have been killed and more than 1,200 were injured, a spokesperson for Israel Defense Forces said. The Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza said Sunday that 313 people were killed, including 20 children, and about 1,990 were injured.
Hamas fighters captured a number of civilians and soldiers as hostages, with fighting ongoing in southern Israel many hours after the operation began, the Israeli military said.
President Joe Biden condemned what he called an “appalling assault against Israel by Hamas terrorists” and said that “Israel has a right to defend itself and its people.” He added, “My Administration’s support for Israel’s security is rock solid and unwavering.”
The militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza, said it was behind the operation and dubbed it “Al-Aqsa Flood.”
The Hamas incursion, stunning in its boldness and complexity, marked a major escalation of its conflict with the Israeli government.
“Enough is enough,” the elusive leader of the group's military wing, Mohammed Deif, said in a recorded message that called on Palestinians to join the fight.
“This is the day of the greatest battle to end the last occupation on earth,” he said, adding that 5,000 rockets had been launched.
The militant group said it had taken a large number of hostages, including senior Israeli officers.
Western leaders lamented the outbreak of violence.
Biden said he told Netanyahu in a call that "we stand ready to offer all appropriate means of support to the Government and people of Israel."
"Terrorism is never justified. Israel has a right to defend itself and its people. The United States warns against any other party hostile to Israel seeking advantage in this situation," Biden said in a statement.
European heads of state — including German Chancellor OIaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron — excoriated Hamas and expressed solidarity with Israel.
Israel in chaos
Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s security minister, declared a state of civil emergency, giving police additional powers to carry out raids and arrests.
Across Israel’s Route 3, a highway 15 miles north of Gaza, police armed with assault rifles fanned out across roads, checking cars for gunmen trying to pass farther into the country.
Highways across the country also emptied out except for emergency vehicles, as security forces erected checkpoints for passing traffic.
The military said fighting was ongoing across the country's south many hours after the incursion began, adding that an unspecified number of civilians and soldiers had been taken hostage.
In Tel Aviv, residents rushed to hospitals and medical offices to donate blood for the injured, as the city's leaders ordered that bomb shelters be opened.
Israel's rescue service has provided care to “hundreds” of injured individuals, from moderate to serious, it said, adding that helicopters, mobile ICUs and bullet-proof ambulances have been mobilized.
The violence follows weeks of heightened tensions along Israel’s volatile border with Gaza, and heavy fighting in the Israeli-occupied West Bank — but also years of unresolved grievances over the treatment of Palestinians that have long threatened to erupt.
The Israeli military confirmed that an infiltration had occurred in several locations near the Gaza barrier in southern Israel. It ordered residents to remain indoors.
Israel has built a massive fence along the Gaza border meant to prevent infiltrations. It goes deep underground and is equipped with cameras, high-tech sensors and sensitive listening technology.
Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade over Gaza after Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007. There have been four wars since then, most recently in 2021. There have also been numerous rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas and other smaller militant groups based in Gaza.
The blockade, which restricts the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, has devastated the territory’s economy. Israel says it is needed to keep militant groups from building up their arsenals, while the Palestinians say it amounts to collective punishment.
Saturday's stunning developments come at a crucial moment, as Israel pursues what would be a landmark deal to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia that is being brokered by the United States.
Any new outbreak of fighting is likely to strain that process and pose a major foreign policy challenge for Biden as he pursues re-election in 2024.
The assault follows a period of heavy fighting in the West Bank, where nearly 200 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli military raids this year, according to U.N. Mideast Envoy Tor Wennesland. Israel says the raids are aimed at militants, but stone-throwing protesters and people uninvolved in the violence have also been killed.
Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets have killed over 30 people so far in 2023, Wennesland said in an August briefing to the U.N. Security Council.
The surprise Hamas offensive comes 50 years and a day after Israel's Arab neighbors launched a coordinated surprise attack that began the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Like that moment, Saturday's incursion will serve as a significant embarrassment to Israel’s vaunted intelligence apparatus. It comes after months of domestic turmoil over the government’s efforts to overhaul the judiciary, which led to mass protests and a rare break between political leaders and the military.
Raf Sanchez reported from Ashkelon, Israel; Daniel Arkin from New York; and Max Burman from London.