Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip have carried out an unprecedented infiltration into southern Israel, sending fighters across the border and firing thousands of rockets into the country as the ruling Hamas militant group announced the beginning of a new operation.
The Israeli military put the country on war alert and began striking targets in Gaza in response, setting the stage for what was likely to be a new heavy round of fighting between the bitter enemies.
In a serious escalation, salvos of rockets fired from Gaza set off constant air raid sirens as far north as Jerusalem.
Videos posted on social media showed what appeared to be uniformed Palestinian gunmen inside the Israeli border town of Sderot.
Another video from Gaza showed a crowd of Palestinian men dancing around and on top of an Israeli tank that was on fire. The authenticity of the videos could not immediately be verified.
The elusive leader of Hamas’ military wing, Mohammed Deif, announced the beginning of what he called “Operation Al-Aqsa Storm”.
“Today the people are regaining their revolution,” he said in the recorded message, as he called on Palestinians from east Jerusalem to northern Israel to join the fight and “expel the occupiers and demolish the walls”.
“We must set the earth on fire under the feet of the occupiers,” he said, claiming that Hamas had fired more than 5,000 rockets into Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said he had convened his security cabinet for urgent discussions.
Following the meeting, Israel’s defence minister announced that Hamas had started a war against the country and pledged that “Israel will win”.
Yoav Gallant warned that Hamas “made a grave mistake” in launching barrages of rockets into southern and central Israel.
“The state of Israel will win this war,” Mr Gallant said.
The escalation comes at a delicate time for his far-right government, as protests against the government’s deeply divisive plan to overhaul the judiciary have spread even within the ranks of the military.
Hundreds of soldiers in the military reserves have either pulled out of training sessions or said they will not report for duty over the judicial changes, threatening to undermine Mr Netanyahu’s reputation as a security expert and raising fears about the effects on the operational readiness of Israel’s armed forces.
Salah Arouri, an exiled Hamas leader, said the operation was a response “to the crimes of the occupation”.
He said fighters were defending the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
The operation, coming on the major Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, caught Israel off-guard, raising memories of the 1973 war in which Israel’s enemies launched a surprise attack on Yom Kippur.
The Israeli military confirmed an infiltration had occurred in several locations near the Gaza border in southern Israel. It ordered residents to remain indoors.
“The military declares a state of war alert,” it said in a statement. “In the last hour, the Hamas terrorist organisation had begun a massive shooting of rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory, and terrorists infiltrated into Israeli territory in a number of different locations.”
Cities and towns in southern Israel emptied as the military closed roads near Gaza and millions of Israelis scrambled to bomb shelters while air raid sirens wailed overhead.
In the kibbutz of Nahal Oz, just two miles from the Gaza Strip, terrified residents who were huddled indoors said they could hear constant gunfire echoing off the buildings.
The army said residents next to Gaza should stay in their homes due to the infiltration.
Israel has built a massive fence along the Gaza border meant to prevent infiltrations. It goes deep underground and is equipped with cameras, high-tech sensors and sensitive listening technology.
The infiltration marked a major accomplishment — and escalation — by Hamas.
The sound of outgoing rockets whooshing through the air could be heard in Gaza and sirens wailed as far away as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem during an early morning barrage that lasted for over two hours.
Israel’s Magen David Adom rescue agency said a 70-year-old woman was critically injured when a rocket hit a building in southern Israel. Elsewhere, a 20-year-old man was moderately injured by rocket shrapnel, it said.
As the rocket attacks continued throughout southern and central Israel, millions of Israelis were instructed to stay near bomb shelters in their homes and apartment buildings. The army said residents next to Gaza should stay in their homes due to the “security incident”.
The launches came after weeks of heightened tensions along Israel’s volatile border with Gaza, and heavy fighting in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Israel has maintained a blockade over Gaza since Hamas, an Islamic militant group that opposes Israel, seized control of the territory in 2007.
The bitter enemies have fought four wars since then. There have also been numerous rounds of smaller fighting between Israel and Hamas and other smaller militant groups based in Gaza.
The blockade, which restricts the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, has devastated the territory’s economy.
Israel says the blockade is needed to keep militant groups from building up their arsenals. The Palestinians say the closure amounts to collective punishment.
The rocket fire comes during a period of heavy fighting in the West Bank, where nearly 200 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli military raids this year.
Israel says the raids are aimed at militants, but stone-throwing protesters and people not involved in the violence have also been killed. Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets have killed more than 30 people.
The tensions have also spread to Gaza, where Hamas-linked activists held violent demonstrations along the Israeli border in recent weeks. Those demonstrations were halted in late September after international mediation.