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Israel’s retaliatory war on Hamas promises to be long, bloody and destructive, escalating the already unprecedented violence as a defiant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatens to turn parts of the Gaza Strip to ruins.
The conflict spread to northern Israel on Sunday as the Iran-backed, Lebanon-based Hezbollah fired rockets and shells into Israeli positions in a disputed area along the border with Syria and Lebanon. Israel’s military returned fire with armed drone strikes on Hezbollah targets. In a statement Hezbollah said it carried out the action “in solidarity” with the Palestinian people.
Gun battles in southern Israel continued through the weekend, while Hamas militants held hostages in stand-offs in two towns.
Local media reports described active hostage situations involving children, with families across Israel turning to social media to report loved ones who had gone missing, among them young revellers who had been at a music festival stormed by armed militants.
The broad attack by which Hamas militants entered Israel on multiple fronts, including using paragliders, has stunned political commentators in exposing failures by the Israeli establishment that is traditionally considered the strongest intelligence power in the region.
The prime minister’s warning to Palestinians in Gaza impacts more than 2 million civilians, trapped between Egypt and Israel, at the centre of a 16-year Israeli blockade.
“All the places that Hamas hides in, operates from, we will turn them into ruins,” Netanyahu said. “Get out of there now.”
Warnings were also issued in Arabic to those living in the conflict-plagued zone where Israel has also said it will stop supplying electricity, fuel and goods.
Hamas gunmen descended on as many as 22 locations outside the Gaza Strip from sunrise on Saturday morning, waging a highly co-ordinated campaign characterised by direct person-to-person fighting by land, sea and air, while launching thousands of rockets at Israeli cities.
Israeli soldiers and civilians have been kidnapped, with harrowing videos spreading online depicting those taken captive in what has quickly become the deadliest attack on Israeli soil in decades. By Sunday afternoon (AEST) at least 300 Israelis were confirmed dead.
A stunned Israel quickly declared war and launched a retaliatory missile campaign. Palestinian authorities said 256 Palestinians had been killed during the Israeli response as of Sunday night (AEST).
Thousands have been injured on both sides of the conflict and the death toll is expected to rise.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinian people had the right to defend themselves against the “terror of settlers and occupation troops”.
In a phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Abbas said “injustice” inflicted on Palestinians was fuelling the conflict.
During the call, Abbas said the escalation was linked to the “practices of the colonialists and the Israeli occupation forces, and the aggression against Islamic and Christian sanctities,” Palestinian news agency WAFA said in a statement.
Israel has announced a mass army mobilisation, while tens of thousands of army reservists have been called up. Forces were fighting Hamas incursions in eight places on Sunday, the military said.
Since the assault began, it has launched airstrikes flattening residential buildings in giant explosions, including a 14-storey tower that held dozens of apartments as well as Hamas offices in central Gaza City.
Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the country’s retaliation would “change the reality on the ground in Gaza for the next 50 years”.
“What was before, will be no more. We will operate at full force,” he said in a statement.
As Israel promised retribution, world leaders rallied to offer their support and condemn the actions of Hamas.
US President Joe Biden offered Israel “all appropriate means of support” on Saturday. In a televised statement on Saturday night, Biden said he had directed his national security team to maintain contact with countries throughout the region including Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and European allies.
It comes at a critical time, with the US in the final stages of negotiating a landmark agreement to normalise relations between adversaries Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as a US-Saudi defence pact.
Saudi Arabia has called for an end to the violence, but said the situation had been inflamed by Israel depriving Palestinians of their rights. Iran, which has provided extensive funding and arms support to Hamas also described Saturday’s attack on Israel as an act of self-defence by Palestinians.
French President Emmanuel Macron said he strongly condemned “the terrorist attacks currently hitting Israel”. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak are among leaders who have backed Israel’s right to defend itself.
Jonathan Panikoff, the US government’s former deputy national intelligence officer on the Middle East, said the assault could only be described as “a security failure”.
“Undermining what was thought to be an aggressive and successful layered approach toward Gaza by Israel,” he said.
Natan Sachs, the director of the Centre for Middle East Policy and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings said the Israeli intelligence failure was a misstep that would have long-term repercussions.
“This is truly remarkable,” he told CNN. “Israelis [will be] demanding answers, both in the military but also … the political echelon. We don’t have answers yet as to why this happened. Clearly there was a misunderstanding or misconception about Hamas priorities, the chance that they would try to do something.”
with AP, Reuters
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