At least 198 people were killed in Gaza on Saturday, according to the health ministry in the Palestinian enclave, following a barrage of rockets fired into Israel by the Palestinian group Hamas, to which Israel responded with air strikes.
The ministry said up until 4:20 pm (1320 GMT) there were “198 martyrs and 1,610 wounded with different injuries” in the conflict.
Earlier in the day, Hamas launched the biggest attack on Israel in years, killing at least 40 people in a surprise assault that combined gunmen penetrating into Israeli towns with a barrage of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip.
Israel said the group had declared war as its army confirmed fighting with Hamas fighters in several Israeli towns and military bases near Gaza and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to retaliate.
“Our enemy will pay a price the type of which it has never known,” he said. “We are in a war and we will win it.”
At least 40 Israelis were killed in the attack so far with more than 770 wounded, Israel’s ambulance service said, but added that the toll was expected to rise.
“Since the morning hours, the Magen David Adom (MDA) emergency medical services said teams provided medical care to hundreds of casualties, and pronounced 40 people dead,” it said, while the Israeli health ministry confirmed that at least 779 people had been injured and taken to hospitals.
The Israeli military said it had launched air strikes into Gaza, where witnesses reported hearing heavy explosions, with at least two dead.
The attack marked an unprecedented infiltration by an unknown number of Hamas gunmen into Israel from Gaza and one of the most serious escalations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in years.
Israeli broadcaster Reshet 13 TV News said fighters were holding Israelis hostage in the town of Ofakim, and that five Palestinian fighters had been killed in the town of 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, indicating the extent of the attack.
In Gaza, people rushed to buy supplies in anticipation of days of conflict ahead. Some evacuated their homes and headed for shelters.
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.
The last major flare-up between Israel and Hamas was a 10-day war in 2021.