Israel ‘going on the offensive’ after retaking territories overrun by Hamas

Ruth Michaelson & Ben Doherty

The Guardian  /  October 9, 2023

Military confirms 700 killed in Israel after attack described as ‘9/11 and Pearl Harbor wrapped into one’.

Israel has re-established control of all the communities that were overrun by Hamas fighters over the weekend, but militants may still be present on its territory, a defence forces spokesperson has said.

The chief military spokesperson, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, said the country had drafted a record 300,000 reservists in response to Saturday’s surprise, multi-front Hamas attack from Gaza and was “going on the offensive”.

“We are now carrying out searches in all of the communities and clearing the area,” he said in a televised briefing on Monday. Military officials had previously said their focus was on securing Israel’s side of the border before carrying out any major escalation of the counteroffensive in Gaza.

Hagari confirmed reports that 700 people had been killed in Israel – a staggering toll by the scale of recent conflicts – including at least 73 members of the security forces. The Palestinian health ministry said retaliatory Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip killed more than 100 people overnight on Sunday, bringing the Palestinian death toll since Saturday to 493, with more than 2,750 wounded.

Late on Sunday, the Israeli rescue service Zaka said it had recovered at least 260 bodies from the site of the Supernova music festival, near the Re’im kibbutz close to the Gaza border, which was overrun by Hamas fighters on Saturday. Shocking images and video from the site showed festivalgoers running across open fields as Hamas gunmen targeted them.

Some of the revelers were among the more than 100 hostages taken into Gaza since the incursion, which caught Israel’s vaunted military and intelligence apparatus off guard and brought heavy battles to its streets for the first time in decades.

There were reports on Monday morning of an active hostage situation in a kibbutz in southern Israel, and ongoing rocket and artillery fire in the southern city of Ashkelon. Israeli forces reported fighting between an Israeli paratroop brigade and militants in the southern city of Sderot.

Breaches remain in the triple-layered and electrified barrier that surrounds Gaza’s eastern border. Hamas militants are believed to have used a tunnel that emerges close to the kibbutz of Be’eri, 4 miles from the border. An Israeli military spokesperson, Lt Col Richard Hecht, said 70 Hamas militants fought there overnight.

Hecht called the events of the last three days “a change of paradigm”. There were reports that an airstrike on a building in Rafah, which killed 25 people, was launched without a warning shot being fired, suggesting the Israel Defence Forces may have abandoned this practice.

The IDF spokesperson provided no comment on whether it had halted the practice, or the reported use of white phosphorus in Gaza, a densely populated area and home to more than 2 million people.

Early on Monday, Lt Col Jonathan Conricus, an 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.”

Drawing a US analogy, he said the weekend’s attack, for Israel, “could be a 9/11 and a Pearl Harbor wrapped into one”.

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”.

He said the IDF military response had two primary objectives. “At the end of this war, Hamas will no longer have any military capabilities to threaten Israeli civilians … [and] Hamas will not be able to govern the Gaza Strip.”

Survivors of the festival attack described the rockets and gunfire coming from several directions as the assault unfolded on Saturday morning.

Arik Nani went to the party to celebrate his 26th birthday on Friday night but ended up fleeing a massacre the following morning. “I heard shots from every direction, they were firing at us from both sides,” he told Reuters. “Everyone was running and didn’t know what to do. It was total chaos.”

After hours of running, Nani and his friend reached shelter where he heard horrifying stories from others who had escaped. “People speaking about murder they saw in front of their eyes, someone who saw an entire kidnapped family and a small girl who was murdered,” he said.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, declared war on Hamas on Sunday, raising the prospect of a ground assault on Gaza, a move that in the past has brought further casualties.

Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militia claimed to have abducted more than 130 people from Israel, saying they would be traded for the release of thousands of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. The announcement, though unconfirmed, was the first sign of the scope of the abductions.

The captives are known to include soldiers and civilians, including women, children and older adults – mostly Israelis but also people of other nationalities. Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, told the US news channel CBS that “dozens” of American citizens, largely dual nationals, were among the hostages.

The Israeli military said only that the number of captives was “significant”.

An Egyptian official told the Associated Press that Israel sought help from Cairo to ensure the safety of the hostages, amid frantic negotiations by Egyptian officials in a vain attempt to broker a ceasefire.

Egypt had discussed a potential ceasefire with both Palestinian militants and Israeli officials, it said, but Israel was not open to a truce “at this stage”, according to the official, who asked not to be identified.

Israeli forces have continued their attacks by land and sea on the Gaza Strip, including strikes that levelled much of the town of Beit Hanoun in the north-east of the enclave.

Hagari told journalists Hamas used the town as a staging ground for attacks. “We will continue to attack in this way, with this force, continuously, on all gathering [places] and routes used by Hamas,” he said.

Across Gaza, a densely populated strip of land housing 2.3 million people, residents described their terror at having nowhere to seek shelter from the increasing bombardments. The area has been sealed off by an Israeli blockade since the 2006 election of Hamas, as well as by routine closures on the southern border with Egypt.

Nasser Abu Quta told the AP news agency that 19 members of his family and five of his neighbours were killed in an airstrike on their building in a refugee camp in Rafah, southern Gaza.

The building housed only civilians, he insisted. “This is a safe house, with children and women,” the 57-year-old said by telephone.

The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the strike. Another strike in the same city early on Monday killed 11, including women and children.

In a UN security council emergency meeting on Sunday, the US demanded all 15 members strongly condemn “these heinous terrorist attacks committed by Hamas”, but they took no immediate action.

The US deputy ambassador, Robert Wood, said afterwards that “a good number of countries” did condemn the Hamas attack.

Russia’s UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, told AP that the US tried to say during the meeting that Russia was not condemning the attacks, but “that’s untrue”.

“It was in my comments,” he said. “We condemn all the attacks on civilians.”

The US special antisemitism envoy, Deborah Lipstadt, who is one of the world’s most renowned Holocaust scholars, called the Hamas attacks “the most lethal assault against Jews since the Holocaust”.

She said there was “no justification” for the “heinous, barbaric terrorism against Israeli civilians” and mass murder.

Ruth Michaelson is a journalist based in Istanbul

Ben Doherty is a reporter for Guardian Australia