JERUSALEM/GAZA: Israel's troops were battling on Monday to clear out Hamas gunmen more than two days after they burst across the fence from Gaza on a deadly rampage, and the army said it would soon go on the offensive after the biggest mobilisation in Israeli history.
Fighters were still holed up in several locations inside Israel after killing 700 Israelis and seizing dozens of hostages in a raid that shattered Israel's reputation of invincibility. In Hamas-controlled Gaza, Israel carried out its most intensive retaliatory strikes ever, killing some 500 people since Saturday.
Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel's blockade would be tightened to prevent food and fuel from being brought into the strip, home to 2.3 million people. Israel's chief military spokesman said troops had re-established control of communities that had been overrun, but that isolated clashes continued as some Palestinian gunmen remained active.
"We are now carrying out searches in all of the communities and clearing the area," chief military spokesperson Rear-Admiral Daniel Hagari said. Earlier, another spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hecht, acknowledged that it was "taking more time than we expected to get things back into a defensive, security posture". The shocking images of the bodies of hundreds of Israeli civilians sprawled across the streets of towns, gunned down at an outdoor dance party and abducted from their homes were like nothing seen before in the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hagari said 300,000 reservists had already been activated in just two days, adding to speculation that Israel could be contemplating an unprecedented ground assault of Gaza, a territory it abandoned nearly two decades ago. "We have never drafted so many reservists on such a scale," Hagari said. "We are going on the offensive." Palestinians reported receiving calls and mobile phone audio messages from Israeli security officers telling them to leave areas mainly in the northern and eastern territories of Gaza, and warning that the army would operate there. Hamas says the attack was justified by the plight of Gaza under a 16-year blockade and the deadliest Israeli crackdown for years in the occupied West Bank.
Mainstream Palestinian groups who deplored the attacks said violence was predictable with a peace process frozen for nearly a decade and far-right Israeli leaders talking of annexing Palestinian land once and for all. Israel and Western countries said nothing justified the intentional mass killing of civilians. The attackers gunned down scores of young Israelis - media reported as many as 260 killed - at an outdoor desert dance party. A day later dozens of survivors were still emerging from hiding. The site was littered with wrecked and abandoned cars. "It was just a massacre, a total massacre," said Arik Nani, who had been celebrating his 26th birthday and escaped by hiding for hours in a field. Israel's retaliation was also on a scale unseen despite four wars in Gaza since Hamas took control there 16 years ago. In footage obtained by Reuters, dozens of people were seen climbing over collapsed buildings in search of survivors, the air still dusty from impact. Sirens rang out as emergency teams put out cars that had caught fire. "The man you see is one martyr of dozens. This place is packed with residents and people who were displaced," a man said in the video as people pulled a body from the rubble.
Egypt, which has mediated between Israel and Hamas at times of conflict in the past, was in close contact with the two sides, trying to prevent further escalation, according to Egyptian security sources. The violence jeopardises U.S.-backed moves towards normalising relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia - a security realignment that could have threatened Palestinian hopes of self determination and hemmed in Hamas's backer Iran. Hamas fighters were continuing to cross into Israel from Gaza, the military said, adding that between 70 and 100 gunmen have been killed in the Beeri area since Saturday.
Fighter jets, helicopters and artillery struck over 500 Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets in the Gaza Strip overnight, with targets including Hamas and Islamic Jihad command centres and the residence of a senior Hamas official, Ruhi Mashtaa. "The price the Gaza Strip will pay will be a very heavy one that will change reality for generations," Defence Minister Gallant said in Ofakim, one of the towns where calm was restored after a battle with Hamas fighters. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's options for hitting Hamas, which controls the narrow Gaza Strip that is home to 2.3 million Palestinians, could be curtailed by concern for the many Israelis seized in the raid. A full-scale invasion of Gaza, which Netanyahu has tried to avoid in his long years in power, could endanger the lives of the hostages. In a statement, the Israeli Air Force said it dropped some 2,000 munitions and more than 1,000 ton bombs on Gaza aimed at over 8,000 targets in Gaza in the last 20 hours.
Among the targets were three rocket launchers directed at Israel, a mosque where militants were operating and 21 high-rise buildings that served militant activity. Since Saturday, at least 493 people were killed and more than 2,750 people were wounded, said the Health Ministry in Gaza. "The Zionist enemy's military targeting and bombing of homes inhabited by women and children, mosques and schools in Gaza amount to war crimes and terrorism," Hamas official Izzat Reshiq said in a statement. Hamas's main international ally Iran congratulated Hamas on the attack, while denying involvement. Israeli forces and Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah militia exchanged artillery and rocket fire. Appeals for restraint came from around the world, though Western nations largely stood by Israel. CAPTIVES Israel's military, which faces harsh questions for the country's worst intelligence failure in 50 years, said it had regained control of most infiltration points along security barriers, killed hundreds of attackers and captured dozens more. Tens of thousands of soldiers are now around Gaza and the military is evacuating Israelis around the frontier. Israel has not released an official toll but its media said at least 700 people were killed in Saturday's attacks, children among them.
Military spokesperson Daniel Hagari called it "the worst massacre of innocent civilians in Israel's history." Netanyahu has vowed revenge. Palestinian fighters took dozens of hostages to Gaza, including soldiers and civilians, children and the elderly. A second Palestinian militant group, Islamic Jihad, said it was holding more than 30 of the captives. "The cruel reality is Hamas took hostages as an insurance policy against Israeli retaliatory action, particularly a massive ground attack and to trade for Palestinian prisoners," said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.