Social media was flooded with images of Hamas gunmen bringing seized soldiers and civilians into Gaza on motorbikes and parading what appeared to be captured Israeli military vehicles through the streets, raising the spectre of a far wider escalation in the conflict as international concern mounted.Videos also showed what appeared to be at least one dead Israeli soldier within Gaza being dragged and trampled by an angry crowd of Palestinians. One video showed a woman Israeli solder being stripped naked and assaulted.The surprise attack began around 6.30am with thousands of rockets aimed as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, some bypassing the Iron Dome defence system and hitting buildings. Hamas fighters – travelling in pick-up trucks, speed boats and even using motorised paragliders – breached Gaza’s security barrier and attacked nearby Israeli towns and military posts, sparking gunbattles as panicked residents hid out in bunkers. Bodies were seen lying on the streets of the town of Sderot near Gaza.
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“Send help, please!” one Israeli woman sheltering with her two-year-old child pleaded as militants outside opened fire at her house and tried to break into their safe room, Israeli media reported. “With rockets we somehow feel safer, knowing that we have the Iron Dome (missile defense system) and our safe rooms. But knowing that terrorists are walking around communities is a different kind of fear,” said Mirjam Reijnen, a 42-year-old volunteer firefighter and mother of three in the kibbutz of Nahal Oz, just 4km from the Gaza Strip.
Israeli retaliatory strikes razed highrises in several parts of Gaza. Black smoke and orange flames billowed into the evening sky even as crowds of mourners carried the bodies of freshly killed militants through the streets, wrapped in green Hamas flags.
At least 232 Palestinians were killed and hundreds wounded in clashes at the border into Israel, where fighters captured the crossing point and tore down fences. Some of those dead were civilians, among crowds that attempted to cross into Israel through the damaged gates.
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By early evening, the Israeli military said fighting continued in at least five places in southern Israel.
Quoting Israeli media, Reuters said at least 200 Israelis had been killed. Army spokesman Daniel Hagari said militants were holding hostages in standoffs in two towns, Beeri and Ofakim, which is 24km from the Gaza border. Hamas deputy chief Saleh al-Arouri told Al Jazeera that the group had enough captives to make Israel free all Palestinians in its jails.
Watch Visuals from Tel Aviv: Hamas unleashes unprecedented assault on Israel