JERSUSALEM — Israel declared war on Sunday as it bombarded the Gaza Strip with airstrikes in retaliation for a major surprise attack by Hamas.
The video in the player above is from a previous report.
The statement came a day after an unprecedented incursion by Hamas militants who breached a fortified border fence and shot civilians and soldiers in Israeli communities along the Gaza border during a major Jewish holiday.
Up to 1,000 Hamas fighters took part, said US Secretary of State Andrew Blinken. The rampage included an attack on a crowded music festival where authorities had removed about 260 bodies by Sunday.
Israel retaliated, including with airstrikes that leveled a 14-story tower housing Hamas offices. At least 700 people were reportedly killed in Israel and more than 400 people in Gaza.
Here are some key takeaways as the fighting unfolds:
WHAT DOES THE DECLARATION OF WAR MEAN?
Israel has previously carried out major military operations in Lebanon and Gaza, which it portrayed as wars, although without a formal declaration.
The statement gives Israel the green light to take “significant military steps” against Hamas. This came as the military continued its efforts to eradicate the last groups of militants in southern Israel following the attack.
According to the Israeli military, Israel has attacked more than 800 targets in Gaza as of Sunday. These included airstrikes that leveled much of the town of Beit Hanoun in the northeastern corner of the enclave.
Hamas used the city as a base for attacks, Israeli Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari told reporters. There was no immediate information on the number of casualties, and most of the community’s population of tens of thousands likely fled the bombing.
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader involved in Saturday’s attack said it was holding more than 30 Israelis among dozens of prisoners in Gaza. He said they would not be released until all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons were released.
What was the reaction of the US and other nations?
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered the Ford Carrier Strike Group to sail to the eastern Mediterranean to be ready to assist Israel. The deployment – which also includes a variety of ships and fighter aircraft – underscores the United States’ concern to prevent the conflict from spreading.
Preliminary reports indicate that at least four U.S. citizens were killed and seven others were missing in the attacks, a U.S. official said.
The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting on the situation behind closed doors, and Germany’s development minister said her country would review its aid to Palestinian areas.
In Iran – a long-time supporter of Hamas and other militant groups – senior officials praised the raid. President Ebrahim Raisi spoke by telephone with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhalah, the state news agency IRNA reported on Sunday.
Egypt spoke to both sides about a possible ceasefire, but an Egyptian official said Israel was not open to a ceasefire “at this point.”
An Egyptian police officer opened fire on Israeli tourists in the city of Alexandria on Sunday, killing at least two Israelis and an Egyptian, authorities said. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo urged Americans in the country to take precautions because the attack could be related to clashes between Israel and Palestinian militants.
IS ANYTHING BEING DONE TO PROTECT CIVILIANS?
According to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, 74,000 people in the Gaza Strip have sought refuge in dozens of their schools after Israel asked residents of the border areas to evacuate. The number of displaced people has risen by nearly 50,000 since Saturday, when about 20,000 moved into United Nations-run schools for the first time.
The number is likely to rise amid heavy shelling and airstrikes in various parts of the overpopulated and besieged territory of 2 million people, UNRWA said on Sunday.
The agency said one of its schools took a direct hit and suffered severe damage, but there were no injuries. An Associated Press video on Sunday showed a large crater in the middle of the school where 225 people had taken refuge.
“Schools and other civilian infrastructure, including those housing displaced families, must never be attacked,” UNRWA said in a statement.
In previous rounds of conflict, ceasefires have prevented major fighting, but they have always proved shaky. Every agreement in the past has provided a period of calm, but the deeper, underlying problems are rarely addressed, setting the stage for the next round of airstrikes and missiles.
WHAT CAUSED THE ATTACK?
Hamas officials cited long-simmering sources of tension, including the dispute over the sensitive Al-Aqsa mosque, sacred to both Muslims and Jews. Competing claims to the site known to Jews as the Temple Mount have led to violence before, including a bloody 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in 2021.
In recent years, Israeli religious nationalists – such as National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir – have increased their visits to the site. Last week, during the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli activists visited the site, prompting condemnation from Hamas and accusations that Jews were praying there in violation of the status quo agreement.
Hamas also pointed to the expansion of Jewish settlements on land the Palestinians claim for a future state, as well as Ben-Gvir’s efforts to tighten restrictions on Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons.
Tensions escalated recently with violent Palestinian protests along the Gaza border. In negotiations with Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations, Hamas has pushed for Israeli concessions that could ease the 17-year blockade on the enclave and help halt a worsening financial crisis that has heightened public criticism of its rule.
Some political analysts have linked the Hamas attack to current U.S.-brokered talks about normalizing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. So far, reports of possible concessions to the Palestinians in the negotiations have concerned the occupied West Bank and not the Gaza Strip.
What has happened lately in divided Israel?
The outbreak of violence comes at a difficult time for Israel, which is facing the biggest protests in its history against Netanyahu’s proposal to weaken the Supreme Court while he stands trial on corruption charges.
The protest movement accuses Netanyahu of a power grab. This has bitterly divided society and sparked turmoil within the military, threatening countless reservists to stop volunteering for service in protest.
Reservists are the backbone of the army, and protests within the ranks have raised concerns about its cohesion, readiness and deterrent power as it faces threats on multiple fronts. Netanyahu called on Saturday for a “large-scale mobilization of reserve forces.”