New escalation

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the country is "at war" after Palestinian militants launched a surprise attack by sea, air and land that has already left at least 100 dead and hundreds of injured. Dozens more are suspected to have been kidnapped, as the offense involved incursions in different Israeli cities.

Iran-backed Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, released a video showing its fighters had captured three men dressed in civilian clothes and described as "enemy soldiers" in the video caption. More unverified videos show what appears to be additional citizens being taken to Gaza or small towns near it.

Israel said it was reinforcing "all arenas" and mobilizing reserves for what it has called "Operation Swords of Iron." The country has already launched retaliatory airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, where the death toll has quickly risen to about 200.

Hamas, classified as a terrorist organization by the US, said the incursion was the start of a major operation. Gunfights broke out between Israeli troops and Gaza infiltrators, some of whom arrived on motorcycles and para-gliders. Israel's army said its forces were fighting Palestinian militants on the ground in several locations near the Strip.

Militant infiltration from Gaza, an impoverished enclave home to 2.3 million people, has been rare since Hamas took control in 2007, leading to Israel's crippling blockade. Gaza is sealed off from Israel by a militarized border barrier. Other unverified videos showed a bulldozer taking down parts of a fenced barrier.

The rocket barrage from Gaza -- which Army spokesperson Richard Hecht said numbered at least 2,200 -- left cars burning beneath residential buildings in the Israeli city of Ashkelon, about 10 kilometres (six miles) north of Gaza. Military spokespeople said its naval forces have killed dozens of Palestinians who are trying to get into the country by sea.

Hamas called on "the resistance fighters in the West Bank" as well as "our Arab and Islamic nations" to join the battle, in a statement posted on Telegram. According to BBC, the deputy head of Hamas's political bureau, Saleh al-Arouri, claimed that "senior officers" from the Israeli army have been captured.

In Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, some Palestinian residents cheered and blew their car horns as sirens blared.

Hundreds of residents fled their homes in Gaza to move away from the border with Israel, mostly in the territory's northeast, an AFP correspondent said, adding the men, women and children carried blankets and food.

Netanyahu said in a statement that the Hamas attack will be riposted at "a magnitude that the enemy has not known".

An adviser to Iran's supreme leader said he was "proud" of the Hamas action. Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which fought a devastating war against Israel in 2006, hailed the Palestinians' "heroic operation on a grand scale".

The Gaza fighting erupted as Washington attempts to mediate a landmark deal which would see Israel and Middle East powerhouse Saudi Arabia establish diplomatic ties.

With information from AFP.

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