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Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu declares war after surprise attack by Gaza militants

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

An early morning attack on Israel by Hamas militants from Gaza has left around 70 Israelis dead and hundreds wounded. A Gaza health official says that nearly 200 Palestinians, mostly militants, were killed, and more than 1,600 Palestinians were wounded in Israel's retaliatory strikes. The surprise attack saw Palestinian fighters enter Israel by land, air and sea with thousands of rockets being fired toward Israel. NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us now from Tel Aviv. Daniel, thanks for being us. And tell us what it's like there now.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Well, you know, this is something that's been unfolding for about 10 hours now and going. And it's just astonishing scenes. Both Israelis and Palestinians I've been speaking with have been shocked by what has been happening. It started early this morning. Heavily armed Palestinian militants in Gaza flew across the border on paragliders. They swam through the Mediterranean Sea. They drove over land in pickup trucks through Israel's fortified border fence. And they infiltrated several Israeli military camps and at least five Israeli communities - residential communities - near Gaza. And there are still gun battles going on with Israeli forces as Palestinian militants still holed up there. We have heard some pretty astonishing stories - Israelis speaking to Israeli Public Broadcasting, talking about being at an outdoor festival, feeling gunmen by foot and hiding in bushes, militants going door to door, breaking into homes as people are - were holed up in their reinforced safe rooms. And in the town of Sderot, NPR spoke to a social worker, Doron Shabti (ph). He was speaking from his reinforced shelter room. He was with his baby. They had ran out of milk - formula. They had turned off all the lights in the house. And here's what he said.

DORON SHABTI: That's the situation. They're always outside here. They're fighting, like, every once in a while. And they're flashing out (ph), stay put, stay home, not to go outside, not to - don't open the windows, etc.

ESTRIN: And then at the same time, we've had this other front of about 3,000 rockets and counting fired at Israel all day long, also at Jerusalem, at Tel Aviv. Here's what I recorded this morning in Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR RAID SIRENS)

ESTRIN: So Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said, we are at war. Israel has been launching strikes on Gaza. Netanyahu says the first goal is to retain - regain control of those Israeli communities where militants are and then to deliver a decisive blow on Gaza. But what is really making this astonishing, Scott, for people here is that Hamas has published videos, which NPR has not confirmed, of Israeli soldiers and civilians, they are claiming, killed and taken hostage alive inside Gaza.

SIMON: Daniel, any indication as to why the attacks are happening now? And how can it be that Israel was caught by surprise?

ESTRIN: That is the big question that's being asked here. I mean, this is a major Israeli intelligence failure and a huge victory for Hamas to be carrying out this attack, a surprise attack, on a Jewish holiday today. A lot of comparisons to what happened here 50 years ago on the Yom Kippur holy day when a war broke out - also a surprise attack. Hamas is saying this is in response to Israeli desecration of a mosque in Jerusalem where Israeli Jewish ultranationalists have been visiting. They're also aiming to release Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. So a lot of questions now, Scott, about how this is going to unfold and how it will impact Israeli domestic politics, as well.

SIMON: And concerns about developing into a bigger war.

ESTRIN: Absolutely. Concerns about a multifront war opening with other regional actors. And already, we've seen anti-government protests in Israeli saying they're canceling their protest groups tonight. And we're going to have to see how this even impacts Saudi-Israeli efforts at reaching some kind of a normalization, opening diplomatic ties. So there's a lot going on, and now it's a very, very concerning here in Israel.

SIMON: Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv, thank you.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Daniel Estrin
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.