JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s military scoured the country’s south for Hamas fighters, guarded breaches in its border fence and pounded the Gaza Strip from the air on Monday as it vowed to lay total siege to the impoverished, Hamas-ruled territory in the wake of an unprecedented weekend incursion.
More than two days after Hamas launched its surprise attack from Gaza, the military said the fighting had largely died down for now. Israel’s vaunted military and intelligence apparatus was caught completely off guard, bringing heavy battles to its streets for the first time in decades.
Israel formally declared war on Sunday, portending greater fighting ahead, and a possible ground assault into Gaza – a move that in the past has brought intensified casualties. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to destroy “the military and governing capabilities” of the militant group, which is deeply rooted in Gaza.
As Israel hit more than 1,000 targets in Gaza and its tanks and drones guarded openings in the border fence to prevent more infiltrations, Palestinian militants continued firing barrages of rockets, setting off air raid sirens in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Video posted online appeared to show a plume of smoke near a terminal at Ben Gurion International Airport. There was no immediate word on casualties or damage from the latest bombardment.
But civilians have already paid a high price. Around 700 people have been killed in Israel – a staggering toll by the scale of its recent conflicts. Nearly 500 have been killed in Gaza, an enclave of 2.3 million Palestinians bordering Israel and Egypt. Palestinian militant groups claimed to be holding over 130 captives from the Israeli side.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, meanwhile, ordered a “complete siege” on Gaza, saying authorities would cut electricity and block the entry of food and fuel. Israel and Egypt have imposed various levels of blockade on the territory since Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.
Gallant said Israel was at war with “human animals,” using the kind of dehumanizing language often employed by both sides at times of soaring tensions.
After about 48 hours of pitched battles inside Israel, the chief military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, told reporters Israel has “control” of its border communities. He said there had been some isolated incidents early Monday, but that “at this stage, there is no fighting in the communities.”
But he added that militants may remain inside Israel.
Hagari said that 15 of 24 border communities have been evacuated, with the rest expected to be emptied in the coming day.
Earlier, Hamas spokesman Abdel-Latif al-Qanoua told The Associated Press over the phone that the group’s fighters continued to battle outside Gaza and had captured more Israelis as recently as Monday morning.
He said the group aims to free all Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, which in the past has agreed to painful, lopsided exchange deals in which it released large numbers of prisoners for individual captives or even the remains of soldiers.
In its airstrikes, Israel’s military said it leveled much of Beit Hanoun – a town in northeast Gaza that Hagari said Hamas was using the as a staging ground for attacks. There was no immediate word on casualties, and most of the community’s population of tens of thousands likely fled beforehand.
Hagari said the army had called up around 300,000 reservists – a massive mobilization.
He reiterated that the goal is to decimate Hamas’ military and governing capabilities. Hamas has ruled Gaza since driving out forces loyal to the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007 and its rule has gone unchallenged through the 16-year Israeli and Egyptian blockade and four previous wars with Israel.
After breaking through Israeli barriers with explosives at daybreak Saturday, Hamas gunmen rampaged for hours, gunning down civilians and snatching people in towns, along highways and at a techno music festival attended by thousands in the desert. Palestinian militants have also launched around 4,400 rockets at Israel, according to the military.
The Israeli military estimated 1,000 Hamas fighters took part in Saturday’s initial incursion. The high figure underscored the extent of planning by the militant group, which has said it launched the attack in response to mounting Palestinian suffering under Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, its blockade of Gaza, its discriminatory policies in annexed east Jerusalem and tensions around a disputed Jerusalem holy site sacred to Muslims and Jews.
The Palestinians want a state of their own in all three territories, captured by Israel in the 1967 war, but the last serious peace talks broke down well over a decade ago, and Israel’s far-right government is opposed to Palestinian statehood.
Among the captives that Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad group claim to have taken are soldiers and civilians, including women, children and older adults, mostly Israelis but also some people of other nationalities. The Israeli military has said only that the number of captives is “significant.”
Mayyan Zin, a divorced mother of two, said she learned that her two daughters had been abducted when a relative sent her photos from a Telegram group showing them sitting on mattresses in captivity. She then found online videos of a chilling scene in her ex-husband’s home: Gunmen who had broken in speak to him near the two weeping daughters, Dafna, 15, and Ella, 8. Another video showed the father being taken into Gaza.
“Just bring my daughters home and to their family. All the people,” Zin said.
In Gaza, where the U.N. said more than 123,000 people had been displaced by the fighting, residents feared further escalation.
As of late Sunday, Israeli airstrikes had destroyed 159 housing units across the territory and severely damaged 1,210 others, the U.N. said. The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said a school sheltering more than 225 people took a direct hit. It did not say where the fire came from.
In the city of Rafah in southern Gaza, an Israeli airstrike early Monday killed 19 people, including women and children, said Talat Barhoum, a doctor at the local Al-Najjar Hospital. Barhoum said aircraft hit the home of the Abu Hilal family, and that one of those killed was Rafaat Abu Hilal, a leader of a local armed group. The strike caused damage to surrounding homes.
Over the weekend, another airstrike on a home in Rafah killed 19 members of the Abu Quta family, including women and children, survivors said.
Several Israeli media outlets, citing rescue service officials, said those killed on the Israeli side include at least 73 soldiers. The Gaza Health Ministry said 493 people, including 78 children and 41 women, were killed in the territory. Thousands have been wounded on both sides. An Israeli official said security forces have killed 400 militants and captured dozens more.
On Sunday, the U.S. dispatched an aircraft carrier strike group to the Eastern Mediterranean to be ready to assist Israel, and said it would send additional military aid.
In northern Israel, a brief exchange of strikes with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group fanned fears that the fighting could expand into a wider regional war. The Israeli military said the situation was calm after the exchange.
Elsewhere, six Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers Sunday around the West Bank.
This story has been updated to correct the name of Palestinian family to Abu Quta, not Abu Outa.
Adwan reported from Rafah, Gaza Strip. Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre and Julia Frankel in Jerusalem; Wafaa Shurafa in Gaza City; Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel; Bassem Mroue in Beirut; Samy Magdy in Cairo; and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.