Palestinian militants launch surprise attacks inside Israel
Palestinian militants launched a stunning assault inside Israel on Saturday, with fighters infiltrating into the country’s south and a massive barrage of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip.
Israel responded to the surprise attack by declaring a “state of war alert” and striking targets in Gaza, setting the stage for what was likely to be a new and intense round of fighting.
It 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.
Militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza, announced Saturday that it was behind the operation it dubbed “Al-Aqsa Flood.”
“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 end the last occupation on earth,” he said, adding that 5,000 rockets had been launched.
The Israeli military confirmed an infiltration had occurred in several locations near the Gaza barrier in southern Israel. It ordered residents to remain indoors.
“The military declares a state of war alert,” it said in a statement.
It said Hamas “will face the consequences and responsibility.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top security officials were convening for an emergency meeting.
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. The infiltration marked a major accomplishment — and escalation — by Hamas.
At least one Israeli was killed by rocket fire, authorities said. Graphic but unverified video and photos shared rapidly on social media suggested that toll could rise sharply.
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.
The tensions have also spread to Gaza, where Hamas-linked activists held violent demonstrations along the Israeli border in recent weeks. Those demonstrations were halted in late September after international mediation.
Israel’s government, led by Netanyahu, is the most right-wing in the history of the state.
Saturday’s stunning developments come at a crucial moment, as it 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.
The assault comes during 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 Palestinian offensive comes 50 years since Israel’s Arab neighbors launched a coordinated surprise attack that began the 1973 Arab-Israeli war