Fears of a huge ground invasion of Gaza are growing after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to turn the besieged Palestinian enclave into a “deserted island” in response to the worst attack his country has suffered in decades.
The pledge came after gunmen from Hamas, which governs Gaza, rampaged through Israeli towns and killed at least 250 people on Saturday while retreating with soldier and civilian hostages in the deadliest day of violence for Israel since the Yom Kippur War 50 years ago.
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The Israeli military responded with devastating retaliatory strikes on Gaza, killing more than 230 Palestinians in the blockaded strip.
Israeli forces were still bombing Gaza and fighting with Hamas gunmen in parts of southern Israel in the early hours of Sunday and a spokesman for the military said the situation in the country was not totally under control.
Hamas said its unprecedented offensive by land, air and sea was in response to the desecration of the Al Aqsa Mosque as well as Israeli atrocities against Palestinians over the decades. These include the 16-year blockade of Gaza, Israeli raids inside West Bank cities over the past year, increasing attacks by settlers on Palestinians as well as the growth of illegal settlements.
Mohammed Deif, a Hamas military commander, said the time has come “for the enemy to understand… they cannot keep going without consequences”.
Hamas leaders said the assault that began in Gaza would spread to the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem.
Netanyahu, who has declared a “state of war” and called up military reservists, promised to fight Hamas to the bitter end. He told the 2.3 Palestinians in Gaza who are under an Israeli land, air and sea blockade to leave the territory immediately.
“We will take mighty vengeance for this black day,” the Israeli leader said in a televised address. “We will take revenge for all the young people who lost their lives. We will target all of Hamas’s positions. We will turn Gaza into a deserted island. To the citizens of Gaza, I say. You must leave now. We will target each and every corner of the strip.”
‘Kill and capture’
In Gaza, residents spent the night in darkness and uncertainty as Israel cut power to the territory and intensified its bombardment of the densely populated enclave. The attacks flattened residential buildings in giant explosions, including a 14-story tower that held dozens of apartments as well as Hamas offices in central Gaza City.
Around 3am local time (00:00 GMT), a loudspeaker atop a mosque in Gaza City blared a stark warning to residents of nearby apartment buildings: Evacuate immediately. Just minutes later, an Israeli airstrike reduced one five-story building to ashes.
Gaza’s residents carried their dead and wounded into crumbling and overcrowded hospitals with severe shortages of medical supplies and equipment. The health ministry said 232 people had been killed and at least 1,700 wounded.
Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy chief of Hamas’s political bureau, told Al Jazeera that Hamas was holding a large number of Israeli captives, including senior military officials. He said Hamas had enough captives to make Israel free all Palestinians in its jails.
“We managed to kill and capture many Israeli soldiers,” he said.
While world leaders called for restraint, many observers predicted a major ground assault on Gaza is likely in the works.
“There’s going to be a second act and that is an invasion of Gaza, and I think larger than 2014 when Israel called up 80,000 reserves,” said Yonah Jeremy Bob, a military analyst for the Jerusalem Post.
“Within a day or two, Israel will have a massive force that will be able to overwhelm Hamas forces in Gaza,” Bob told Al Jazeera.
Danny Danon, a member of Israel’s Knesset or parliament, said a response against Hamas is coming.
“The people in Gaza will have to take into consideration they will have to pay a price. Unlike Hamas, we have no intention of hurting civilians, but when we hunt Hamas we will be strong, we will be efficient, and we will do whatever it takes to hunt them down,” Danon told Al Jazeera.
“We will not sit idly by after more than 200 Israeli civilians were butchered, massacred today on our Jewish holiday.”
Meanwhile, in southern Israel, residents had yet to be given the all-clear to leave shelters where they hid from the assailants since the early hours. In the city of Sderot, Israeli forces were attempting to demolish a police station that had been seized by Palestinian fighters earlier in the day.
“It seems the Israeli forces are trying to bulldoze that building to try and avoid any boobytraps. It is not yet clear whether any gunmen are left inside,” said Al Jazeera’s Willem Marx, reporting from West Jerusalem.
“We heard from Israeli military today that all options remain on the table, when asked if this could end in a ground invasion of Gaza. We know that large numbers of reservists, thousands of them, have been called up and large numbers of heavy weaponry, including tanks, have been seen on roads heading south towards Gaza,” he added.
‘World is watching’
United States President Joe Biden decried the “unconscionable” assault by Hamas fighters and pledged to ensure Israel has “what it needs to defend itself”. He told Netanyahu that the US “stands with the people of Israel”.
“Israel has the right to defend itself and its people, full stop. There’s never a justification for terrorist attacks and my administration’s support for Israeli’s security is rock solid and unwavering,” said Biden.
Biden also warned Israel’s enemies that “this is not a moment for any party hostile to Israel to exploit these attacks to seek advantage. The world is watching”.
Egypt is in talks with Saudi Arabia and Jordan in a bid to defuse Palestinian-Israeli tensions, the Egyptian foreign ministry said.
Across the Middle East, there were demonstrations in support of Hamas with Israeli and US flags set on fire and marchers waving Palestinian flags in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
In Iran, Israel’s regional archenemy, members of parliament opened their session on Saturday by chanting, “Death to Israel” and “Israel will be doomed, Palestine will be the conqueror”.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said, “Today’s operation created a new page in the field of resistance and armed operation against occupiers.”
In Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, hundreds also took to the streets to celebrate the Hamas operation.
Ali Abunimah, the co-founder of The Electronic Intifada website, said 80 years of Israeli repression and “massacres” in Palestine was the reason behind the violence carried out on Saturday.
“The Palestinian people are struggling justly for their liberation. An Indigenous people fighting for their existence will fight back with great motivation to decades of living under the boot of this colonial regime whose brutality is being highlighted by the response from Israeli leaders,” he told Al Jazeera.