At least 198 people have been killed and 1,610 wounded in the Palestinian enclave of Gaza during Israel’s retaliation after a deadly multi-pronged attack by Hamas forces into Israel, the health ministry says.
The growing casualty toll on Saturday came after the Palestinian group running the Gaza Strip launched the largest attack on Israel in years, infiltrating areas in the south of the country following a barrage of thousands of rockets fired from the besieged territory.
Israel’s national rescue service, Magen David Adom, said at least 40 people have been killed as hospitals in Israel are treating hundreds of wounded people, including dozens in critical condition.
Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant warned Hamas it made a “grave mistake” in launching the attack, which began at 6:30am local time (03:30 GMT) and involved barrages of rockets fired from multiple locations in Gaza as well as fighters infiltrating Israel by land, sea and air.
“Citizens of Israel, we are at war,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video message from military headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Later on Saturday, Israel’s military said it launched air raids on Gaza in response to the attack.
“Dozens of [Israeli military] fighter jets are currently striking a number of targets belonging to the Hamas terrorist organisation in the Gaza Strip,” the Israeli military said.
Mohammed Deif, a senior Hamas military commander, said earlier that the rocket fire marked the start of “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood”, and he called on Palestinians everywhere to fight the Israeli occupation.
“We’ve decided to say enough is enough,” Deif said as he urged all Palestinians to confront Israel. “This is the day of the greatest battle to end the last occupation on Earth,” he said in an audio message.
Israel’s military told Israelis living around the Gaza Strip to stay in their homes and warned that Hamas would pay a “heavy price for its actions”.
Israeli media reported that Palestinian fighters had opened fire on passers-by in the town of Sderot, in southern Israel, and footage circulating on social media appeared to show uniformed Palestinians engaged in clashes in the border area.
Another video on social media appeared to show a burning Israeli tank surrounded by jubilant Palestinians.
By late Saturday morning, Israeli warplanes had started to pound locations in Gaza – in what the military called “Operation Iron Swords” – and Israeli soldiers were engaged in ground fighting in several locations around the besieged Palestinian enclave.
“Right now we’re fighting. We’re fighting in certain locations around the Gaza Strip … our forces are now fighting on the ground,” Israel’s army spokesman Richard Hecht told reporters.
Witnesses in Gaza heard loud explosions and at least one person was reported killed in the first wave of Israeli air attacks, according to media reports.
The outbreak of major fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian fighters comes after weeks of growing tensions along Israel’s volatile border with Gaza, and months of deadly clashes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
At least 247 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces so far this year, while 32 Israelis and two foreign nationals have been killed in previous Palestinian attacks.
Tor Wennesland, United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, condemned “the multi-front assault against” Israeli towns and cities near Gaza, which he called “heinous attacks targeting civilians”.
“These events have resulted in horrific scenes of violence and many Israeli fatalities and injuries, with many believed to be kidnapped inside the Strip. These are heinous attacks targeting civilians and must stop immediately,” Wennesland said in a statement.
“I am deeply concerned for the well-being of all civilians. I am in close contact with all concerned to urge maximum restraint and call on all sides to protect civilians,” he said.
“This is a dangerous precipice and I appeal to all to pull back from the brink.”
In a statement posted on the Telegram messaging app earlier on Saturday, Hamas called on “the resistance fighters in the West Bank” as well as “our Arab and Islamic nations” to join the continuing fight.
Saleh al-Arouri, an exiled Hamas leader, said “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood” was a response “to the crimes of the occupation” and Palestinian fighters were defending their sacred site in occupied East Jerusalem.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, which was founded in 1982 to fight the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, said in a statement that it was following the events in Gaza closely and was in “direct contact with the leadership of the Palestinian resistance”.