Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Millions of Israelis were jolted awake on Saturday by the sounds of explosions and blaring emergency sirens. The Palestinian group Hamas had launched an unprecedented assault on the country hours after the 50th anniversary of what Israelis call the Yom Kippur War and Arab countries call the October 6 War.
It promptly became clear that the highly organized attack by land, air and sea would turn into a terrorist rampage. Iran-backed Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza strip since 2006, tightening its grip in 2007 when it expelled its Palestinian rivals Fatah in brief internal war, launched thousands of rockets as its operatives infiltrated Israeli territory using motorcycles, trucks, paragliders, and speedboats.
Inside Israel, they went after soldiers and civilians, even posting videos on social media, as the world saw evidence of how they targeted, hunted down, and brutalized Israelis of all ages. Many were kidnapped and taken to Gaza and dragged through the streets.
There’s much that Israel has done wrong. But nothing justifies what Hamas has just perpetrated. As many knowledgeable people have pointed out, what Hamas has done is clearly an act of terrorism, no matter what your definition.
Few Israelis miss the irony that Gaza, the territory from which it withdrew in 2005, is the launchpad for such deadly attacks. Israel and Egypt, Gaza’s neighbors, have imposed a blockade of the territory. But there is no occupation of Gaza, which is now in the hands of Hamas, a terrorist group spun off from the Muslim Brotherhood, with a charter committing it to the destruction of Israel.
On Saturday, Israelis huddled in fear as news spread that heavily armed Hamas gunmen were roaming the south of the country, indiscriminately killing men and women and kidnapping adults and children, taking many of them to Gaza.
CNN and others authenticated many of the videos. In one, geolocated by CNN to a Gaza neighborhood, gunmen open the trunk of a car and pull out a terrified woman — barefoot, with her wrists cable-tied behind her back — and move her into the backseat.
In another video, geolocated by CNN to southern Israel, near Gaza, Hamas militants are seen taking Israelis captive. Social media has become a horror show of terror and viciousness, with images of dead bodies and frightened women and children, some of them already in captivity.
Israel’s Channel 12 spoke to Israelis in communities where they said Hamas militants were trying to break into their homes. In the report, a man in a southern Israel kibbutz, an agricultural community, said his wife and children disappeared, and he tracked her phone to Khan Younis, in Gaza. There was no answer to his calls, and he said he feared his wife and children had become hostages.
In the border town of Sderot, a frequent target of Hamas rockets over the years, an Associated Press photographer captured the bodies of at least six people, who were killed while standing under one of the reinforced bus shelters.
By Saturday evening, with rockets injuring civilians as far north as Tel Aviv, Israeli media reported at least 300 dead and more than 1,400 wounded, with an unknown number taken hostage and prisoners of war. It’s one of the deadliest days in Israel’s history, and a security failure reminiscent of both 9/11 and Israel’s 1973 calamity.
As Israel sought to stop Hamas’ attacks, and launched retaliatory air strikes on targets in Gaza, the casualties started to mount among Palestinians, as well. At least 232 Palestinians have been killed and a further 1,697 have been wounded, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Israeli airstrikes also targeted Hamas offices in Gaza City. After warning it was going to fire, as it usually does, Israel flattened a 14-story building. As always, Palestinian civilians will pay a steep and tragic price.
Hamas leaders say they’re “ready for the worst-case scenario,” fully aware of what they deliberately unleashed.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated the obvious when he told Israelis the country was at war. When this ends, Netanyahu and top Israeli security officials will have to reckon with the stunning failure of intelligence and basic defensive preparations.
This disaster is occurring at a time of deep political fractures in Israel. The time will come for recriminations and the political consequences for this failure will be severe. But the priority is elsewhere now. Benny Gantz, a retired general and one of the opposition leaders, declared, in what he said was a message to Iran, “The entire people of Israel are united…There is no coalition and opposition now.”
For now, Israel is dealing with the immediate threat. And soon, Israel will undoubtedly face withering condemnation, as it always does.
So far, Israel has received solid support from many quarters. President Joe Biden spoke to Netanyahu, offering US support and assistance. Israel, Biden said, has a right to defend itself, reiterating that America’s “support for Israel’s security is rock solid and unwavering.”
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen “unequivocally” condemned the attack as “terrorism in its most despicable form.” French President Emmanuel Macron said “I strongly condemn the current terrorist attacks,” offering his solidarity. German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz said his country “stands by Israel.” The Dutch Prime Minister issued a statement saying he “unequivocally condemns this terrorist violence and fully supports Israel’s right to defend itself.” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed shock, vowing “solidarity with Israel.”
Brazil’s foreign minister, calling for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council, expressed its “solidarity with the Israeli people,” saying there’s no excuse for violence, “especially against civilians.” Ukraine declared its “support for Israel in its right to defend itself and its people.”
Support for Israel, however, was hardly unanimous.
Both Iran, the principal sponsor of Hamas, and Hezbollah, another Iran-linked terrorist organization committed to Israel’s destruction, praised Hamas. And Qatar, while calling for de-escalation and maximum restraint, said it “holds Israel solely responsible for the ongoing escalation due to its ongoing violations of the rights of the Palestinian people.”
Saudi Arabia, which has been negotiating a potential diplomatic deal with Israel, also called for restraint and an “immediate halt to the escalation between the two sides,” but also appeared to blame Israel, although less directly than Qatar, citing the kingdom’s “repeated warnings of the dangers of the explosion of the situation…”
The United Arab Emirates, the crown jewel of the Abraham Accords, called for “maximum restraint and an immediate ceasefire.”
Social media, of course, was full of anti-Israel activists, already gearing up for what comes next.
As sure as night follows day, Israel will retaliate, and millions around the world will blame Israel – and the Jews – ignoring what happened this bloody Saturday.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is extraordinarily complicated. But there’s no denying that what happened on Saturday was an act of terrorism, one that deserves clear, unequivocal condemnation