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Hamas missile strikes kill at least 200 as Israel declares war following surprise attack

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared war on the Hamas militant group following a surprise attack early on Saturday.

Hamas militants fired thousands of rockets from Gaza into Israel in a major escalation between the two sides.

Images on social media showed cars on fire and damaged buildings, while the death toll in Israel had risen to at least 200 by Saturday evening, with hundreds more injured. Israeli media put the death toll higher, at 250.

The Israeli military has confirmed Hamas militants are holding Israeli civilians and soldiers hostage in Gaza.

Meanwhile nearly 200 people are said to have been killed in retaliatory strikes by Israel on the Gaza Strip.

In a speech to the nation, Mr Netanyahu said: “Citizens of Israel. We are at war, not an operation, not an escalation, a war.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

“This morning Hamas launched a murderous surprise attack against the state of Israel and its citizens. We’ve been at it since early morning.”

At least 561 wounded people were being treated in Israeli hospitals, including at least 77 who were in a critical condition, according to an Associated Press count based on public statements and calls to hospitals.

Mr Netanyahu later confirmed that he has called up reservists following the attack, while the Israeli military said it had launched retaliatory strikes in Gaza.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said on Saturday evening at least 232 were killed in the attacks, and 1,610 wounded.

A nurse and an ambulance driver were killed in Israeli strikes on two hospitals on Gaza, medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said. The strikes injured several people and damaged an oxygen station, MSF said on social media platform X.

Following the missile strikes on Israel on Saturday morning, Hamas gunmen are believed to have infiltrated the country in the most serious escalation of the conflict since the two sides fought a ten-day war in 2021.

The militant Islamic Jihad group said it had joined the attacks and was holding several Israeli soldiers captive and Hamas social media accounts showed footage of what were said to be Israeli captives being taken alive into Gaza.

The Israeli military has declined to comment, saying it would address the reports of Israeli captives later.

Israeli broadcaster Reshet 13 TV News said militants were holding Israelis hostage in the town of Ofakim, and that five Palestinian militants had been killed in Sderot and homes had been set on fire.

Israeli media reported gunbattles between bands of Palestinian fighters and security forces in towns in southern Israel. Israel’s police chief said there were “21 active scenes” in southern Israel.

Mr Netanyahu added: “The enemy will pay a price he has never known. In the meantime, I call on all citizens of Israel to strictly obey the instructions of the army and the instructions of the Home Command.

Israeli soldiers deploy in an area where civilians were killed in the southern city of Sderot on Saturday (AFP via Getty Images)
Israeli soldiers deploy in an area where civilians were killed in the southern city of Sderot on Saturday (AFP via Getty Images)

“We are in a war and we will win it.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Israel has an “absolute right to defend itself” following the attacks on Saturday morning.

In a post on X, he wrote: “I am shocked by this morning’s attacks by Hamas terrorists against Israeli citizens.

“Israel has an absolute right to defend itself. We’re in contact with Israeli authorities, and British nationals in Israel should follow travel advice.”

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly later described the attack as “unprecedented” and said Britain was calling on those involved in the conflict to put down their weapons.

“The images that I...have seen on social media would indicate atrocities being perpetrated now quite widely across southern Israel,” he told reporters.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Saturday that the United States would work to ensure that Israel “has what it needs to defend itself”.

“Over the coming days the Department of Defence will work to ensure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself and protect civilians from indiscriminate violence and terrorism,” Mr Austin said in a statement.

Hamas military commander Mohammad Deif announced the start of the operation in a broadcast on Hamas media, calling on Palestinians everywhere to fight.

“This is the day of the greatest battle to end the last occupation on earth,” he said, adding that 5,000 rockets had been launched.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says his people have the right to defend themselves against the “terror of settlers and occupation troops”.

Israeli media reported that gunmen had opened fire on passers-by in the town of Sderot, in southern Israel, and footage circulating on social media appeared to show clashes in city streets as well as gunmen in jeeps roaming the countryside.

It comes a day after Israel marked the 50th anniversary of the 1973 war that brought the country to the verge of catastrophic defeat in a surprise attack by Syria and Egypt.