This story was updated on Sunday to reflect increased deaths, injuries, and hostages.
Israel is officially at war, declared Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday.
Iran-backed Hamas, the terrorist organization that controls Gaza, launched a surprise attack against Israel in the early morning on Saturday that has killed over 700 Israelis and injured over 2,200 people as of noon on Sunday.
Alongside a rocket barrage hitting central and southern cities like Tel Aviv and Ashkelon, Hamas terrorists entered southern Israel, reportedly going home to home to terrorize and kill civilians in over 20 border towns like Sderot.
Hamas has also taken Israeli civilians and soldiers hostage, while also allegedly parading and desecrating dead bodies in graphic videos. The videos are unverified, though the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) top spokesman confirmed that Hamas took hostages. Over 100 Israelis were abducted to Gaza, with another 50 hostages on an Israeli kibbutz freed by the IDF.
Many others are reported missing. Israel has opened a hotline for family members and friends to try and find missing persons.
Israel has responded with air strikes on Hamas infrastructure in Gaza. Reportedly, over 370 Palestinians have been killed, with another 1,600 injured. Over 3,000 rockets were fired by Hamas at Israel over the course of the first 15 hours.
“Today, we awoke to the horrifying news that Hamas terrorists invaded southern Israel in a vicious, pre-meditated, multi-pronged attack,” said a joint statement from the Minneapolis and St. Paul Jewish Federations and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
“As American Jews, we stand in complete solidarity with the people of Israel and their absolute right to defend themselves against this unprovoked aggression,” the statement said. “Our hearts are heavy with concern for our loved ones and friends in Israel. The people of Israel are our family, particularly in our Partnership2Gether communities of Rehovot (which has already suffered rocket attacks) and Sovev Kinneret.
“Our hearts also break for the Israelis living here in Minnesota and the Dakotas, who we know are anguished with worry about their loved ones back home.”
A solidarity gathering for the Twin Cities Jewish community is planned for Tuesday evening at Beth El Synagogue. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m., with the program on at 6 p.m. The gathering is sponsored by the Jewish Federations of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the JCRC, the Minnesota Rabbinical Association, and the Cantor’s Assembly.
Israelis living in Minnesota are in regular contact with their families, and are glued to every rocket notification and news update, shocked by what is happening. This level of civilian casualties and targeting is unprecedented, even in Israel’s history.
“I remember pictures of the Yom Kippur War and people were digging graves in Tel Aviv,” said Eilat Harel, the senior director of community impact and engagement at the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. “That’s what I have in my head.”
Harel said that Israelis are communicating across social media platforms to help family and friends, and offering assistance to lone soldiers and Israelis fleeing the south. Meanwhile, Harel is coaching her daughter, who is staying in the north of Israel, on prepping for taking shelter from rockets if war also erupts in the north.
“It’s all we can do,” she said. “It’s like a tidal wave, it happens.”
Midnight on Friday, Shai Avny got a call from his father-in-law in Israel. He was “panicking, and said ‘we have a war,’” said Avny, who just left a job as the executive director at Mount Zion Temple. “At the beginning, we thought, another rocket attack, not something unusual.”
Then Avny and his family checked the news and saw that Hamas had invaded towns in the south of Israel. “We were up until 4:30 a.m. just watching,” he said.
Avny has a friend who went to a music festival in Israel’s south, which was attacked by Hamas. The friend is missing, and there’s no clear news on what happened to festival participants.
“It’s going to be horrible once it is clear, because I think many people got killed there,” Avny said. The true scale of the Hamas attack will only be clear in a few days, he said, and it’s a painful wait to hear what happened.
“I feel useless,” Avny said. “Some of my friends are going into [IDF reserve duty] right now. People are asking me, how can we help? I don’t have an answer right now. I don’t think Israel has an answer right now…my heart is broken.”
For Avny, his hopes of finding peace with Hamas evaporated with the attack.
“I was always a person who was hoping for peace and to have conversations with the other side because we are all human beings,” he said. But seeing that Hamas militants went house to house to harass and murder Israelis while taking civilian hostages – including the elderly and young children – has broken that in Avny.
Hamas “are not human beings, they don’t deserve to stay alive,” he said. “I’m sorry. I never used to say stuff like that. Never, never, ever in my life. But that’s it.”
For the Minnesota Jewish community, Harel said to make sure to get accurate information about the attack on Israel and Israel’s response. Social media is often rife with misinformation, and news stories from some media organizations can mislead with headlines and how they frame events.
Avny hopes “that the Jewish community will come together as one community to stand behind the people of Israel,” he said. “The government doesn’t matter. Whatever happened with the peace process [doesn’t matter]. It’s about a terrorist organization who controls the Gaza Strip and brings people to kill innocent civilians.”
Israelis, Jewish communities worldwide, and other international onlookers are shocked at both the failure of Israel’s intelligence and military apparatus to see this attack coming on the Jewish High Holy Day of Shemini Atzeret.
The Hamas invasion was launched almost exactly 50 years after the surprise attack of the brutal Yom Kippur War, which caught Israel off guard and resulted in political scandal and the resignation of then-Prime Minister Golda Meir.
U.S. President Joe Biden and a host of other politicians, including those representing Minnesota, have come out in support of Israel.
“Terrorism is never justified,” Biden said in a statement. “Israel has a right to defend itself and its people. The United States warns against any other party hostile to Israel seeking advantage in this situation. My Administration’s support for Israel’s security is rock solid and unwavering.”
In a statement, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz condemned the Hamas attack. “Minnesota condemns the horrific attacks on Israel by Hamas,” Walz said on Twitter. “On a holiday that should be spent peacefully with loved ones, my heart breaks for the victims of this terrible act of violence.”
Most of Minnesota’s congressional delegation have come out in support of Israel.
“I condemn the horrific terrorist attacks by Hamas on Israel, on Shabbat and Simchat Torah/Shemini Atzeret,” tweeted Sen. Tina Smith. “These horrible attacks on civilians, the loss of life, and reports of hostage taking are an outrage. The United States stands in solidarity with Israel.”
Rep. Ilhan Omar, a longtime critic of Israel, also came out against the Hamas attacks.
“I condemn the horrific acts we are seeing unfold today in Israel against children, women, the elderly, and the unarmed people who are being slaughtered and taken hostage by Hamas,” Omar tweeted. “Such senseless violence will only repeat the back and forth cycle we’ve seen, which we cannot allow to continue.”
Israel is mobilizing thousands of reservists as fighting continues and rockets continue to fall on Israeli cities and towns.
“We are at war, and we will win,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement on Israeli TV calling up Israel’s reserves.
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, a fierce critic of Prime Minister Netanyahu, offered to form an emergency unity government to help Netanyahu manage the crisis – if Netanyahu booted his current government allies, widely seen as the most extremist in Israeli history. The Israeli opposition has come out in full support of Israel’s response against Hamas.
“At times like these, there is no opposition or coalition in Israel,” Lapid said in a statement. “We will give full backing to the security forces for a harsh response against terrorism and its proxies.”
There have been numerous unverified videos and photos published online showing fighting in Israeli towns, Hamas militants shooting at civilians in Sderot, and videos of Israeli hostages being abducted including an Israeli grandmother.
“Yoni Asher, an Israeli from the south of the country, reports his mother-in-law, wife & two toddler daughters have apparently been taken hostage by Hamas,” tweeted Noga Tarnopolsky, a longtime reporter on Israel and the Palestinian territories. “Streams of Israelis are on [the] radio, crying, begging for news of relatives who have vanished.”
Israelis are already coming together to address the crisis. There are reports that Israeli civilians have flocked to blood donation centers and have filled thousands of requests for blood donations.
Israeli protesters, who were fighting the Israeli government’s proposed judicial overhaul, have put a pause on all protests and are organizing aid for Israelis near the border with Gaza.