Hundreds killed as Israel battles Hamas forces amid worries over Hezbollah role

Trisha D.
13 Min Read

BEIRUT — Israel formally declared war against Hamas on Sunday, opening the way for a major escalation in fighting, a day after a surprise assault killed at least 600 Israelis. Reprisals by the Israeli military have killed at least 370 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

The authorization of war by the Israeli cabinet would allow the government to carry out a wider mobilization of military reserves and use more military options. It also compels the government to identify specific wartime objectives, raising the specter of a ground invasion of Gaza.

Earlier Sunday, Israeli forces and Lebanese militants also traded fire across the border, sparking fears of a broader regional escalation in the wake of the largest attack by Palestinians on Israeli territory in decades.

Hezbollah, Lebanon’s militant group and largest political party, claimed responsibility for attacks on three targets within the Israeli-controlled Shebaa Farms area, stating on its official media outlet Sunday morning that it had fired artillery shells and guided missiles “in solidarity” with the Hamas attack.

“Our hearts are with you. Our minds are with you. Our souls are with you. Our history and guns and our rockets are with you,” said top Hezbollah official Hashem Safieddine at a rally in Beirut on Sunday.

Hezbollah’s entrance injected a combustible new element into the fighting, as Israel reeled from a sophisticated multi-pronged attack that has left at least 600 of its citizens dead and more than 2,000 wounded, according to Israeli media.

Israeli forces claimed Sunday to have killed more than 400 Palestinian militants, while the Palestinian Health Ministry reported the deaths of 370 people in Gaza from airstrikes.

What’s behind the violence in Israel and Gaza? Here’s what to know.

Foreign nationals were among those killed and captured in Israel. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN’s “State of the Union” that the Biden administration was working to verify reports that Americans were dead or missing.

At least 10 locations in southern Israel, including residential neighborhoods and military bases, remained active battle zones on Sunday afternoon, more than 24 hours after the start of one of the grisliest wars in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The militants that crossed into Israel and overran the communities seemed intent on taking hostages, and hundreds were held in their homes or in public spaces while many more taken across the border into the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s embassy in Washington said Sunday that “dozens” of Israelis were captured in the incursion, and Israel’s military said the hostages included civilians. The spokesman for Hamas’s military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, acknowledged that Hamas had captured and relocated “tens” of Israeli soldiers and officers, adding on Telegram that they had been “safeguarded in safe locations and in the resistance’s tunnels.”

Hamas famously has underground tunnels, running from Gaza into Israel, which Israel dubs “a vast underground city with dozens of access points.” Israel is particularly sensitive to hostage-taking and has in the past released hundreds of prisoners of war in exchange for just one or two of its own — a policy that Hamas has identified as a “vulnerability,” according to Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House.

Hamas has not yet made any demands for the hostages’ release, but militants could spread them out at sites to dissuade Israel from retaliating with strikes, Mekelberg said. Israeli authorities would then have to choose between their normal policy that “life is sacrosanct and it’s worth paying the price, or change the paradigm” and prioritize the military response to Hamas actions.

One couple kidnapped from an all-night trance party near Gaza on Saturday spent hours hiding from armed gunmen in bushes before being captured, according to a friend.

Noa Argamani, 25, and her 29-year-old boyfriend Avinatan Or were among hundreds of revelers at the rave just a few miles from the fence that edges the Gaza Strip when rocket fire began in the early hours of the morning, said Shlomit Marciano, also 25.

The area was later overrun by gunmen, who shot at the fleeing partygoers. Or had messaged Argamani’s father at about 10 a.m. to say they were safe, but that was the last they were heard from until a video was posted online showing Argamani screaming as she was separated from her boyfriend and driven off on a motorcycle.

A later video showed Argamani sitting on cushions in a room with a tiled floor, sipping from a bottle of water. “We know she’s alive from the video, but there are hundreds of people missing,” Marciano said.

Israeli authorities said Sunday they were working to rescue hostages.

“Israel is no stranger to hostage situations and we have specially trained negotiators and rescuers in place,” said Masha Michelson, deputy head of the Israel Defense Forces’ international press department.

Michelson said hundreds of thousands of Israeli soldiers had been deployed to southern and northern Israel over the past day. The army is still working to “clean” the area, going from “home to home, and from trash can to trash can, all of which takes an enormous amount of time,” Michelson said.

In southern Israel, along Gaza’s northeastern edge, abandoned cars and dead bodies lined the road. Many of the bodies appeared to belong to Palestinian militants.

On the edge of Be’eri, a kibbutz in southern Israel, soldiers led families out on foot. Two elderly residents had been hiding in their bomb shelter since Saturday morning.

“The gunfire was unlike anything I had ever heard,” said Ambily, a 37-year-old caregiver who hid with the couple as gunmen overran Be’eri early Saturday morning. The Post did not use her last name out of concern for her security. “It was like something I had only heard before on television or in the movies.”

Retaliatory airstrikes by Israel pummeled the Gaza Strip overnight and Netanyahu vowed to turn “all of the places which Hamas is deployed, hiding and operating in … into rubble.”

“I say to the residents of Gaza: Leave now because we will operate forcefully everywhere,” he said in a televised statement late Saturday.

But in the densely populated enclave of some 2 million people, subjected since 2007 to an Israeli blockade, there are few places to turn.

About half a million people live in areas along the border that Israeli forces warned would be theaters for fighting, according to Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City. That’s too many to take refuge with family or friends elsewhere in Gaza, he said — and no part of Gaza is really safe.

“It was bombing all night long,” Abusada said, adding that it was a “very terrible day yesterday and last night” in his relatively upscale neighborhood of Rimal on Gaza’s western edge.

Conditions in Gaza, already difficult, are becoming dire. After the Israeli government cut electricity to the area on Saturday night in retaliation for the Hamas attack, Gazans have been relying on the local power station, which produces only enough for a few hours of electricity per day, Abusada said.

“We are preparing for the worst. We know that there will be very tough days ahead of us,” Abusada said. “But we have been in those circumstances many times in the past 16 years since Hamas has taken over the Gaza Strip. And in the end, it hasn’t deterred Hamas, it hasn’t stopped Hamas or the Palestinian resistance from fighting Israel.”

The fighting has begun to have ripple effects across the region.

In Alexandria, Egypt, two Israeli tourists and their Egyptian guide were shot and killed, Israel’s Foreign Ministry said, blaming the attack on a “local individual.” A third Israeli national was hurt in the shooting and was “in moderate condition,” the ministry added.

Egyptian media outlets reported that the gunman was an Egyptian policeman, who shot the group as they toured Pompey’s Pillar, an ancient Roman site. State-owned newspaper Al-Ahram said that the man was in custody and is under investigation.

Egypt has engaged in a flurry of diplomacy since the Hamas attack began, with top officials speaking with counterparts in Europe and the United States in an effort to again position the country as a mediator between Israel and Palestinian factions. Cairo has successfully brokered cease-fires during past bouts of fighting.

The shooting in Alexandria served as an awkward reminder to Egyptian officials of strong anti-Israel sentiment among Arab publics, including their own.

Hamas leaders said Saturday’s operation came in response to a series of provocative moves by Israelis, including the storming of the al-Aqsa Mosque complex in East Jerusalem — a site known to Jews as the Temple Mount — by ultranationalist Israeli settlers.

Leaders in Israel’s far-right government have pushed for a greater Jewish presence at the site, which holds religious significance for Jews, Muslims and Christians. It has long been a flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over Jerusalem, and a symbol of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.

The events of the weekend come in the context of 75 years of Israeli occupation of the Palestinians. For Palestinians and supporters across the Middle East who poured into the streets in Tehran, Beirut, Istanbul and Sanaa, Yemen, to celebrate the Hamas attack, the violence was a response to decades of Israeli restrictions, harassment and violence against Palestinians living under Israeli control.

This sentiment raises pressure on groups such as Hezbollah that have largely stayed out of the fray of recent attacks from Lebanon into Israel by Palestinian militants, seeking to avoid an escalation with Israel.

But the volley of rockets, along with fiery comments group leaders Sunday, indicated Hezbollah does not intend to remain on the sidelines.

Mohanad Hage Ali, a Beirut-based fellow with the Carnegie Middle East Center, said it would be difficult for Hezbollah to appear disengaged from the current conflict in Gaza, especially after Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, has taken in members of Hamas’s key leadership lately.

“When the impact on Israel is as big [as today’s], it makes less sense to be risk-averse and compartmentalize things,” he said. “I think this attack reshuffles the cards, big time.”

Rubin reported from Brussels and Parker from Cairo. Susannah George in southern Israel, Loveday Morris in Berlin, Jintak Han in Seoul, Naomi Schanen and Anabelle Timsit in London, Mariana Alfaro in Washington and Noga Tarnopolsky in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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