Hamas launches biggest attack on Israel in years

Thomas Helm, Ismaeel Naar & Lemma Shehadi

The National  /  October 7, 2023

Palestinian militant group says it has begun ‘Operation Al Aqsa Flood’ as Israel retaliates.

Hamas has launched the biggest attack on Israel in years in a surprise assault that involved gunmen crossing the border from Gaza with a heavy barrage of rockets from the Palestinian enclave.

Militants in Gaza launched dozens of rockets towards Israel early on Saturday, as air raid sirens sounded across the country.

Warnings of incoming rockets were heard for several minutes in southern areas surrounding Gaza and in the greater Tel Aviv and Jerusalem areas.

At least one Israeli woman was killed, according to emergency services, as ambulance crews were sent into areas around the Gaza Strip.

Following the rocket attacks, Israel declared a state of alert for war and sent aircraft to strike back.

Explosions could also be heard in cities around Tel Aviv and outside Jerusalem.

The rocket fire was launched from several locations in Gaza starting at 6.30 am, AFP reported.

The Israeli army urged the public to stay close to bomb shelters.

Unverified videos circulating on social media from Gaza showed militants dragging the bodies of several Israeli soldiers into the streets in celebration.

Israeli rescue teams tend to an elderly man seated on a chair in the entrance of a building that received a direct hit in Ashkelon during a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip southern Israel. AFP

The Israeli military said it was hitting the Gaza Strip after Hamas, the militant group that controls of the enclave, announced another operation against Israel.

At least three explosions could be heard as Israel’s anti-rocket defences went into operation.

Following a security cabinet meeting at the Israeli military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant warned that Hamas “made a grave mistake” in launching barrages of rockets 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 at several places and infiltrated Israeli communities.

“The state of Israel will win this war,” Gallant said.

The attack in Jerusalem is considered a major escalation by Israel.

More than 5,000 rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel, Hamas’s armed wing said. It announced it had started “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood”.

“We decided to put an end to all the crimes of the occupation (Israel), their time for rampaging without being held accountable is over,” the group said.

“We announce Operation Al-Aqsa Flood and we fired, in the first strike of 20 minutes, more than 5,000 rockets.”

A senior Hamas official told The National that the operation on Saturday was a response “to the crimes of the occupation”.

“Our fighters today are carrying out a massive operation in our defence of our Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel,” he said.

Ari, 29, told The National from Tel Aviv that residents of the city were awakened early on Saturday by the sirens and immediately sought shelter.

“Behind my building on the main road, people were running into the bomb shelter. I was the last one in. There were kids streaming in and I was throwing them down. Just before I got down, we heard a massive boom. I looked behind and there was smoke billowing out,” he said.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would convene a meeting with security chiefs.

Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza since 2007 after Hamas took power.

The latest escalation in violence comes after more than a week of tensions in Israel after soldiers shot and killed two Palestinians in the occupied West Bank on Thursday.

Abdul Rahman Atta, 23, and Huthaifa Faris, 27, were near killed near the village of Shufa.

A recent increase in Jewish worshippers entering Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem over the holiday of Sukkot this past week has also contributed to a rise in tensions.

The mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, is the most sensitive site in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The mosque fell under Jordanian authority after Israel was created in 1948. Israel captured the site in East Jerusalem in the 1967 war but allowed it to remain under Jordanian administration.

Thomas Helm is Jerusalem Correspondent at The National

Ismaeel Naar is The National’s Arab Affairs Editor

Lemma Shehadi covers stories of Middle East interest in the UK