JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s defense minister announced that the militant group Hamas had launched a war against Israel, promising that “Israel will win.”
After a security cabinet meeting at Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned that Hamas had “made a serious mistake” by firing rocket fire into southern and central Israel in its surprise morning attack.
In one of the most serious escalations in years between Israel and the militant group that rules Gaza, Hamas gunmen crossed the border fence in several places and infiltrated Israeli communities.
“The state of Israel will win this war,” Gallant said.
This is a recent update. AP’s earlier story follows below.
JERUSALEM (AP) — Palestinian militants in Gaza Strip carried out an unprecedented infiltration into southern Israel on Saturday, sending fighters across the border and firing thousands of rockets into the country as the ruling Hamas militant group announced the start of a new operation.
The Israeli military put the country on war alert and began attacking targets in Gaza in response, setting the stage for what is likely to be a new round of heavy fighting between the bitter enemies. In a serious escalation, volleys of rockets fired from Gaza triggered constant airstrike sirens as far north as Jerusalem.
Videos posted on social media appeared to show uniformed Palestinian gunmen in the Israeli border town of Sderot.
A video from Gaza showed what appeared to be the lifeless body of an Israeli soldier being trampled by an angry mob of Palestinians chanting “God is great.” Other footage appeared to show Palestinian militants dragging away a still-living Israeli soldier on a motorcycle and Palestinian men dancing on top of a torched Israeli tank. The authenticity of the videos could not immediately be verified.
The elusive leader of Hamas’s military wing, Mohammed Deif, announced the start of what he called “Operation Al-Aqsa Storm.”
“Today the people are regaining their revolution,” he said in the recorded message, calling on Palestinians from East Jerusalem to northern Israel to join the fight and “drive out the occupiers and tear down the walls.”
“We must set fire to the earth beneath the feet of the occupiers,” he said, claiming Hamas had fired over 5,000 rockets into Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu The office said he would convene his security cabinet for urgent discussions.
The escalation comes at a sensitive time for his right-wing extremist government amid protests against the government deeply divisive plan to reform the judiciary have even spread into the ranks of the military.
Hundreds of military reserve soldiers have either withdrawn from training sessions or said they will not report for duty because of the law changes, threatening to undermine Netanyahu’s reputation as a security expert and raising fears about the impact on the operational readiness of Israel Defense Forces.
Salah Arouri, an exiled Hamas leader, said the operation was a response “to the crimes of the occupation.” He said fighters would defend Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque and the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
The operation, which took place on the most important Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, surprised Israel and caused uproar Memories of the 1973 war in which Israel’s enemies launched a surprise attack on Yom Kippur.
The Israeli military confirmed on Saturday that infiltration had taken place in several locations near the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel. It ordered residents to stay indoors.
“In the last hour, the terrorist organization Hamas had begun massive rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory, and terrorists entered Israeli territory in various places,” it said.
Cities and towns in southern Israel emptied as the military closed roads near Gaza and millions of Israelis rushed to bomb shelters as air raid sirens wailed overhead. In the kibbutz of Nahal Oz, just 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the Gaza Strip, frightened residents huddled in houses said they heard constant gunshots echoing off the buildings.
The army said residents near Gaza should stay in their homes because of the infiltration.
“With missiles, we somehow feel safer knowing we have the Iron Dome (missile defense system) and our safe spaces. But knowing that there are terrorists walking around in the communities is a different kind of fear,” said Mirjam Reijnen, a 42-year-old volunteer firefighter in Nahal Oz, adding that she and her three children were too scared to die Leave accommodation even for a while to use the toilet.
Israel has built a massive fence along the border with Gaza to prevent infiltration. It goes deep underground and is equipped with cameras, high-tech sensors and sensitive listening technology. The infiltration was a major achievement – and escalation – by Hamas.
The sound of departing rockets shooting through the air could be heard in Gaza, and sirens wailed in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem during an early morning barrage that lasted more than two hours. Israeli rescue agency Magen David Adom said a 70-year-old woman was critically injured when a rocket hit a building in southern Israel. Elsewhere, a 20-year-old man was moderately injured by rocket fragments, it was said.
The launches came after weeks of heightened tensions along Israel’s unstable Gaza border and heavy fighting in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Israel has maintained a blockade of the Gaza Strip since Hamas, an Islamic militant group opposed to Israel, took control of the territory in 2007. The bitter enemies have fought four wars since then. There have also been numerous rounds of smaller fighting between Israel and Hamas, as well as other smaller militant groups based in the Gaza Strip.
The blockade, which restricts the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, has devastated the territory’s economy. Israel says the blockade is necessary to stop militant groups from building up their arsenals. Palestinians say the closure amounts to collective punishment.
The rocket fire takes place over a period of Heavy fighting in the West Bank, where nearly 200 Palestinians were killed in Israeli military strikes this year. Israel says the raids targeted militants, but stone-throwing protesters and people not involved in the violence were also killed. Over 30 people were killed in Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets.
Tensions have also spread to Gaza, where Hamas-affiliated militants have staged violent demonstrations along the Israeli border in recent weeks. This Demonstrations were stopped End of September after international mediation.
Adwan reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. AP writer Isabel DeBre contributed from Jerusalem.