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TEL AVIV, Israel — In a deadly surprise attack unprecedented in its scale, Gaza militants infiltrated several Israeli towns and military camps early Saturday and fired more than 2,000 rockets from Gaza toward central and southern Israel, leading to multiple Israeli casualties, the Israeli military said.
Israel’s national rescue service said about 40 Israelis were killed.
The Gaza Health Ministry said 198 Palestinians were killed. Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qidra told NPR the majority of those killed were militants. The Health Ministry also said at least 1,610 Palestinians were wounded.
The Israeli military declared a “state of war alert,” is calling up reservist soldiers and has announced strikes on neighboring Gaza.
“We are at war,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a video statement in front of Israel’s military headquarters.
In a statement, top Hamas militant commander Mohammed Deif called for a regional war. He said the attacks were in response to Israeli “desecration” of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, a reference to Jewish religious ultranationalists who visited the holy site, also revered in Judaism as the Temple Mount, this week during a Jewish holiday.
Starting at 6:30 a.m. local time, Palestinian militants in the blockaded Gaza Strip launched a combined offensive on Israel, infiltrating on paragliders, through the Mediterranean Sea and over land, Israeli military spokesman Richard Hecht told reporters.
Fighting has continued for hours between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen inside at least five southern Israeli communities close to Gaza — the town of Sderot and the kibbutz communities of Nahal Oz, Beeri, Magen and Kfar Aza — as well as two Israeli military camps in the area, Hecht said.
“We understand this is something big,” Hecht said.
The head of a southern Israeli regional council was fatally shot by Palestinian militants in Kfar Aza, a council spokeswoman told Israel’s public broadcaster, and one woman was reportedly killed by rocket fire in southern Israel. There are also unconfirmed reports of Israelis taken hostage inside Gaza.
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Israeli media are reporting on scenes of Gaza militants driving into Israel on trucks and carrying out firefights with civilians inside Israeli communities. Eyewitnesses told Israel’s public broadcaster that Palestinian militants have roamed outside Israeli homes, and opened fire at an outdoor nature festival, sending Israelis running in fields and hiding in bushes. Israeli police have ordered residents of southern Israel to remain in their homes.
Simultaneously, Palestinian militants in Gaza fired heavy barrages of rockets toward Israel. Air raid sirens and loud booms were heard in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and across central and southern Israel early Saturday morning.
Israeli protest organizers announced they were canceling Saturday night’s large weekly demonstrations protesting the far-right Israeli government’s efforts to weaken the powers of Israel’s judiciary. A protest group of reservist soldiers, which has led a large movement of reservists refusing to attend military trainings, called on reservists to serve if they were called up.
The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem said it is “aware that there have been casualties as a result of these incidents” and that embassy staff was sheltering in place.
“We unequivocally condemn the attack of Hamas terrorists and the loss of life that has incurred. We urge all sides to refrain from violence and retaliatory attacks. Terror and violence solve nothing,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.
Saturday’s violence took place on the Jewish Sabbath and the Simchat Torah holiday, and a day after the 50th anniversary of the start of the pivotal 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel came under a surprise deadly attack by Arab countries.
The violence comes after recent weeks of volatile clashes between Palestinians and Israeli troops along the Gaza-Israel border, and deadly Israeli military raids and clashes with Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Israel and militants in Gaza have fought multiple wars in the last decade and a half, while Israel and Egypt have imposed a blockade on the impoverished territory ever since the Islamist militant group Hamas took control there in 2007.
In recent weeks, Egyptian mediators have reportedly sought to broker an agreement that would prevent Gaza-Israel violence, financially stabilize Hamas’ government employees in Gaza and increase the number of Palestinian laborers allowed to work in Israel. The latest violence could threaten efforts to reach a U.S.-brokered diplomatic deal for formal relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
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