Israel declared on Monday that it was laying “full siege” to the Gaza Strip, as it began a counteroffensive after a bloody invasion of Israeli territory led by the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
The effort is complicated by Hamas’s claim that it is holding more than 100 hostages in Gaza, a number that reportedly includes three Canadians.
Speaking two days after the launch of the massive surprise attack, which had killed more than 900 people in Israel and wounded 2,400 others as of Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to punish Hamas. The Islamist group rules Gaza, a small Palestinian enclave on Israel’s Mediterranean coast.
“I ask you to stand firm, because we are going to change the Middle East,” Mr. Netanyahu said while meeting with mayors of southern Israeli cities that had been on the front line of the Hamas assault. “I know you have been through terrible and difficult things. What Hamas will go through will be difficult and terrible … We have only just begun.”
Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said in a video statement that he had ordered a “full siege” of Gaza and its 2.3 million inhabitants. “No power, no food, no gas, everything is closed,” he said, adding that he believed the decision to cut Gaza off was justified because “we are fighting human animals.” On Sunday, Israel formally declared a state of war.
Gaza’s Ministry of Health said at least 680 people had been killed within the territory in an intense wave of more than 1,000 Israeli air strikes since Saturday. Thousands more have reportedly been wounded, and the Hamas-affiliated ministry said many children were among the dead.
Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the armed wing of Hamas, said in a statement on Monday that the group would start executing hostages if Israel didn’t halt its attacks on Gaza’s civilians. Earlier, Hamas had said four of the Israelis it had taken hostage had died because of the air strikes.
Hamas has said it abducted 100 people during the cross-border attack. Islamic Jihad, a separate militant formation that joined Hamas in the assault, has said it is separately holding 30 hostages. The two groups have said they would trade their hostages for the thousands of Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons.
Earlier Monday, there were reports that Qatar was attempting to negotiate a swap that would result in all female hostages held in Gaza being released in exchange for the release of all Palestinian women held in Israeli prisons.
Israel is not now making any effort to negotiate for the release of hostages taken by Hamas during its attacks, Lior Haiat, a spokesperson for Israel’s foreign ministry, said Monday.
“We are in a war and I think this is not the time for negotiation and mediation,” Mr. Haiat told a news conference for international media. “We are still trying to secure our border, to find out if there are any other Hamas terrorists on Israeli territory and to see, to find people that are injured, or even dead in the area.”
But the country’s foreign minister and a spokesperson for its military offered a different perspective.
Foreign Affairs Minister Eli Cohen acknowledged that many people from various countries are among the hostages taken by Hamas.
“We are committed to bring them back, in the spirit of mutual responsibility,” he said. “We demand that Hamas not harm any of the hostages. Their safety is their responsibility.”
Casualty figures on both sides are expected to keep rising. Clashes continued on Monday in several Israeli towns where pockets of Hamas fighters were holding out, even as Israel amassed some 300,000 reservists near Gaza ahead of an expected invasion of the narrow and densely populated strip. Hamas, meanwhile, continued to fire rockets at Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where sirens sounded twice on Monday.
Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mélanie Joly, said on television Monday that the government had received reports of three missing Canadians.
Among those believed to have been taken hostage in Gaza is Vivian Silver, a Winnipeg native and veteran peace activist who was seized from her home in Be’eri, a kibbutz just east of Israel’s de facto border with Gaza, on Saturday morning. The 74-year-old grandmother is the long-time director of the Arab Jewish Center For Empowerment, Equality, and Cooperation, and the founder of a separate organization called Women Wage Peace that she created in 2014.
A family friend of a missing 33-year-old mother of two, who was described on social media as having roots in Ottawa, denied the connection and said that identifying the woman as Canadian may put her in additional danger.
Some 260 of the Israelis killed by Hamas had been attending an outdoor music festival in the desert to mark the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. On Monday, the family and friends of a Montreal man, Alexandre Look, identified him as one of the revelers who had died.
Global Affairs Canada said it was looking into reports that a Canadian citizen had been killed in the bloodbath instigated by Hamas.
Videos posted online in the aftermath of the attack on the rave showed a crowd of festival-goers fleeing in fear as shots rang out. One video showed a young woman crying out for help as she was abducted by men on a motorbike, while another man was led away with his hands behind his back.
“Never before have so many Israelis been killed by one single thing, let alone enemy activity on one day,” Israeli military spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said in a video statement late Sunday. He called it “by far the worst day in Israeli history” and compared it to “a 9/11 and a Pearl Harbour wrapped into one.”
Up to 1,000 Hamas fighters are believed to have taken part in the invasion, during which some Hamas members flew into Israeli territory using hang gliders, while others used bulldozers to tear parts of a border fence down. The border fence was breached in as many as 80 locations, and 20 Israeli communities and 11 military bases were attacked.
In addition to the reported death of the Canadian citizen, at least 11 American citizens are believed to have been killed in the Hamas attacks.
Thailand said on Monday that 12 of its citizens had been killed, and another 11 kidnapped. Nepal said 10 of its citizens were dead in the carnage. Thailand and Nepal are the home countries of many caregivers and domestic workers in Israel.
The wave of Israeli air strikes and artillery attacks is expected to precede a ground assault and an attempt to liberate the hostages.
First, an embarrassed Israeli military – long considered the most capable and technologically advanced in the Middle East – must clear Hamas fighters from its own soil. The Israeli military said in a statement on Monday that it was engaged in battles with Hamas in “seven or eight” locations across southern Israel. Hamas fighters were believed to still be crossing freely back and forth from Gaza on Monday.
“From our point of view, it’s the biggest failure. From their point of view, it’s the greatest victory,” said Mitchell Barak, a Jerusalem-based pollster who previously worked for Mr. Netanyahu.
Mr. Barak, whose two military-age sons were mobilized immediately after Saturday’s attacks, said many Israelis were struggling to understand how Hamas could have planned an operation involving 1,000 fighters – one that succeeded in briefly capturing Israeli military bases – without Israel’s military or intelligence services having any foreknowledge of it. “We were not prepared. We underestimated the enemy.”
Mr. Netanyahu has said Israel will strike everywhere Hamas operates, and he warned Gaza residents that they should flee. With no way of leaving the narrow strip, many Palestinian civilians have taken refuge in schools and other facilities managed by the United Nations. UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, said one of its schools, where more than 225 people were sheltering, was struck on Sunday. UNRWA did not say where the fire had come from.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that more than 187,500 people have been displaced in Gaza since the beginning of the conflict.
Hasan Jaber, a prominent Palestinian journalist who has aided correspondents from The Globe and Mail during their visits to Gaza, said his office had been destroyed Saturday when Israeli missiles struck the 14-storey Palestine Tower in Gaza City. He said he was now sheltering at home with his family.
“Still alive but it was a bad night they were shelling everywhere,” he wrote in a WhatsApp message on Monday. “They are targeting everything and there is no safe place in Gaza.”
Israel occupied Gaza from 1967 until 2005, when it withdrew its soldiers and settlers from the strip, though the UN and other international organizations still consider Gaza to be under occupation, since Israel controls the skies and sea and all entry points to the strip except for a single border crossing to Egypt that functions irregularly.
Hamas, which took power shortly after the Israeli withdrawal, says the crushing 16-year-old blockade of Gaza – along with Israeli moves to annex parts of the West Bank and East Jerusalem – justify its attacks. Western governments, including Canada’s, have said that nothing can justify brutal murder and kidnapping of civilians.
There are worries the war could expand beyond Israel and the Palestinian Territories. If Israel were to point to Tehran as the mastermind behind the invasion, it could set off a regional conflagration and draw in Iran’s regional allies in Syria and Lebanon, and potentially even Israel’s main backer, the United States.
On Monday, White House spokesperson John Kirby said that while Iran was “complicit” in the actions of Hamas, there was no evidence tying it directly to Saturday’s attack. “Iran has long supported Hamas and other terrorist networks throughout the region with resources capabilities training,” he told MSNBC. “And so in that regard, clearly, Iran is complicit here, but in terms of specific evidence on this, these sorts of attacks, no, we don’t have anything.”
Tensions rose on Israel’s northern border on Monday, as Israeli troops shot and killed two gunmen who had crossed the frontier from Lebanon. That incursion, which was claimed by Islamic Jihad, prompted Israeli artillery and helicopters to fire across the border. Hezbollah, another Iranian-backed group that wields a more powerful and sophisticated army than Hamas, said four of its members had been killed in the bombardment, and that it had replied by firing rockets and mortars at the Galilee region of Israel.
Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia militia that fought Israel to a standstill in a 2006 war that destroyed much of southern Lebanon, has praised the weekend attack by Hamas, but until Monday had stayed on the sidelines.
There have also been minor clashes in the West Bank, which is under Israeli military occupation and the political control of Fatah, a secular rival to Hamas. The Islamists have a strong following in the West Bank, but Hamas’s fighters there have less access to the rockets and other weapons that have been smuggled into Gaza.
As Israel’s challenges mounted, there were increasing calls for Mr. Netanyahu to form a government of national unity that would include some opposition parties. Former defence minister Benny Gantz, who heads one of the largest blocs in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, said he would only join a Netanyahu-led government if far-right figures, including Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, were excluded from the cabinet.
Mr. Barak, the pollster, said that Mr. Netanyahu, who built his reputation as a security-first leader, would see his legacy forever stained by the Oct. 7 attack. “He’s Mr. Security. But at the end of the day, the worst debacle in Israeli security happened on his watch.”
With a report from Ian Bailey in Ottawa