Israel declares siege on Gaza as Hamas claims Israeli strikes killed captives

Oliver Holmes

The Guardian  /  October 9, 2023

Defence minister says he has ordered ‘complete siege’ on Gaza Strip and ‘everything is closed’.

Israel has declared a “complete siege” of Gaza, cutting it off from water and power supplies, and launched hundreds of strikes on the Palestinian enclave, as Hamas claimed Israeli bombings had killed hostages held there.

Palestinian militants are believed to have abducted more than 100 people during a surprise multi-front attack in which they killed more than 700 – making Saturday the deadliest day in Israel’s history.

In response, Israel has launched strikes from the air and sea, which medics said had killed more than 560 Palestinians in Gaza, an area home to 2.3 million people with nowhere to flee. Separately, about 120 miles to the north of Gaza, Israel said its forces had fought off gunmen crossing from Lebanon – an incident that raises the specter of a second front in the unfolding war.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, formally declared war on Sunday and called up 300,000 reservists for duty, signaling a possible ground assault into Gaza – a move that in the past has always brought further bloodshed. However, Israeli forces face the unprecedented task of fighting an urban war while dozens of hostages are likely to be hidden in tunnels and basements across the Gaza Strip.

On Monday, Abu Ubaida, a spokesperson for the armed wing of Hamas, confirmed the worst fears for the Israeli public when he claimed that Israeli bombardment had already killed “four of the enemy’s captives and their captors”.

Qatar’s foreign ministry said it was in mediation talks with Hamas and Israeli officials, including over a possible prisoner swap, and a state-run newspaper in Egypt reported the Egyptian government was negotiating a release of female detainees held by both sides. However, neither Israel nor Hamas confirmed they were talking.

The captives are known to include civilians, including women, children and older adults – mostly Israelis but also people of other nationalities – and soldiers. Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, has said dozens of American citizens, largely dual nationals, are among those held captive.

Hamas’s attack, in which assailants rampaged through the heavily fortified frontier and shot unarmed civilians as they encountered them, has left the Israeli military scrambling to regain control of its territory. Palestinian militants have continued to fire hundreds of rockets deep into Israel.

It was only on Monday, more than two days later, that Israel’s army declared its forces were in control of towns and villages in its southern territory, although a spokesperson acknowledged that militants could still be hiding inside Israel.

“We are in control of the communities,” said the chief military spokesperson, R Admiral Daniel Hagari, adding that there still might be “terrorists” in the area.

However, as Israeli troops were massing in the south, Israel said it had thwarted an infiltration attempt by gunmen operating out of Lebanon to the north. Israeli combat helicopters later carried out strikes inside Lebanon, and Israelis living near the Lebanese frontier were told to seek shelter until further notice.

The Israeli Defence minister, Yoav Gallant, said he had instructed the military to put Gaza under siege, a word rarely uttered in public by Israeli officials.

“I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel, everything is closed,” Gallant said. “We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.”

It was not immediately clear if Egypt, which shares a southern border with Gaza, would keep its land crossing open. Inhabitants of Gaza require permission to enter Egypt, which can sometimes take days or even weeks to be approved.

Saturday’s attack caught Israel’s vaunted military and intelligence apparatus off guard, bringing gun battles to Israel’s streets for the first time in decades and shaking the country to its core. Once across the frontier, militants moved several miles into Israel and killed civilians indiscriminately.

Zaka, an Israeli rescue service, said it had retrieved at least 260 bodies from the site of the Supernova music festival near the kibbutz of Re’im, close to the Israel-Gaza border. Images and video from the site showed festivalgoers running across open fields as Hamas gunmen targeted them.

Early on Monday, Lt Col Jonathan Conricus, an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) spokesperson, said the situation in Israel was dire. “It is by far the worst day in Israeli history. Never before have so many Israelis been killed by one single thing on one day.”

Conricus said a significant number of Israeli civilians and military personnel had been taken hostage and moved into Gaza. He did not specify a figure, but said “many, many Israelis [have been] forcefully taken from Israel”.

Gaza has been sealed off by a 16-year Israeli blockade after the election of Hamas in 2006, as well as by routine closures on the southern border with Egypt.

Conricus said the IDF response would make sure that at the end of the war “Hamas will not be able to govern the Gaza Strip”.

Oliver Holmes is a Guardian journalist; he was previously Jerusalem correspondent