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EDITOR IN CHIEF- ABDULLAH BIN SALIM AL SHUEILI

Gaza battle escalates after Hamas launches attack

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Gunmen from the Palestinian group Hamas rampaged through Israeli-occupied towns on Saturday killing and capturing scores of civilians and soldiers in a surprise assault, met by Israel with massive retaliatory air strikes that killed scores in the Gaza Strip.


The worst attack on Israel for decades unleashed a war that both sides vowed to escalate.


At least 200 Israelis were reported killed and 1,100 wounded by gunbattle raging in more than 20 locations inside Israel. In Gaza, health officials reported more than 230 people killed and 1,600 wounded.


"Our enemy will pay a price the type of which it has never known," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. "We are in a war and we will win it". Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said the assault that had begun in Gaza would spread to the West Bank and Jerusalem.


"This was the morning of defeat and humiliation upon our enemy, its soldiers, and its settlers," he said in a speech. "What happened reveals the greatness of our preparation.


What happened today reveals the weakness of the enemy." In Sderot, in southern Israel near Gaza, bodies of Israeli civilians lay strewn across a highway, surrounded by broken glass. A woman and a man were sprawled out dead across the front seats of a car. A military vehicle drove past the bodies of another woman and a man in a pool of blood behind another car.


"I went out, I saw loads of bodies of terrorists, civilians, cars shot up. A sea of bodies, inside Sderot along the road, other places, loads of bodies," said Shlomi from Sderot. Terrified Israelis, barricaded into safe rooms, recounted their plight by phone on live TV.


"They just came in again, please send help," a woman identified as Dorin told Israel's N12 News from Nir Oz, a kibbutz near Gaza. "My husband is holding the door closed ... They are firing rounds of bullets." Esther Borochov, who fled a dance rave party attacked by the gunmen, told Reuters she survived by playing dead in a car after the driver trying to help her escape was shot point blank.


"I couldn't move my legs," she told Reuters at the hospital. "Soldiers came and took us away to the bushes." In Gaza, black smoke and orange flames billowed into the evening sky from a high-rise tower hit by an Israeli retaliatory strike. Crowds of mourners carried the bodies of freshly killed militants through the streets, wrapped in green Hamas flags.


Gaza's dead and wounded were carried into crumbling and overcrowded hospitals with severe shortages of medical supplies and equipment. The health ministry said 232 people had been killed. Streets were deserted apart from ambulances racing to the scenes of air strikes. Israel cut the power, plunging the city into darkness.


By nightfall on Saturday in southern Israel, residents had yet to be given the all-clear to leave the shelters where they had hidden from the gunmen since the early hours. "It’s not over because the (army) hasn’t said the kibbutz is clear of terrorists," Dani Rahamim told Reuters by telephone from the shelter where he was still hiding in Nahal Oz, close to the Gaza fence.


Gunfire had subsided but regular explosions could still be heard. Hamas said it fired a volley of 150 rockets toward Tel Aviv on Saturday evening in retaliation for an Israeli air strike that took down a high rise building with more than 100 apartments.


Hamas deputy chief Saleh al-Arouri told Al Jazeera that the group was holding a large number of Israeli captives, including senior officials. He said Hamas had enough captives to make Israel free all Palestinians in its jails. The Israeli military confirmed Israelis were being held in Gaza.


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