Israel declares war, bombards Gaza and battles to dislodge Hamas fighters after surprise attack

Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike Sunday in Gaza City. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

TEL AVIV, Israel — The Israeli government formally declared war and gave the green light for “significant military steps” to retaliate against Hamas for its surprise attack, as the military labored into Monday to crush fighters still in southern towns and intensified its bombardment of the Gaza Strip. The toll passed 1,100 dead and thousands wounded on both sides.

More than 40 hours after Hamas launched its unprecedented incursion out of Gaza, Israeli forces were still battling with militants holed up in several locations. At least 700 people have reportedly been killed in Israel — a staggering toll on a scale the country has not experienced in decades — and more than 400 have been killed in Gaza.

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Israel said it brought in special forces to try to wrest control of four Israeli sites from Hamas fighters, including two kibbutzim that militants entered earlier in their attacks. Footage released by Israeli police from one area showed forces kneeling in tall grass as they exchanged fire with Hamas militants across an open field.

The declaration of war portended greater fighting ahead, and a major question was whether Israel would launch a ground assault into Gaza, a move that in the past has brought intensified casualties.

Meanwhile, Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad group claimed to have taken captive more than 130 people from inside Israel and brought them into Gaza, saying they would be traded for the release of thousands of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. The announcement, though unconfirmed, was the first sign of the scope of abductions.

The captives are known to include soldiers and civilians, including women, children and older adults — mostly Israelis but also some people of other nationalities. The Israeli military said only that the number of captives is “significant.”

The Israeli military estimated 1,000 Hamas fighters took part in Saturday’s initial incursion. The high figure underscored the extent of planning by the militant group ruling Gaza, which has said it launched the attack in response to mounting Palestinian suffering under Israel’s occupation and blockade of Gaza.

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