Israel fights to retake towns as fears for hostages grow

Israel was grappling with a new reality Monday, after the biggest attack in decades shifted the country into a war that the prime minister warned would be long and difficult, requiring the military to call up hundreds of thousands of reservists as it struggles to regain control of towns captured by militants.

Soldiers were still fighting for control of towns in southern Israel near the border with Gaza, said Lt Col Richard Hecht of the Israel Defense Forces.

“We are still fighting,” he said at a briefing Monday morning. “We thought by this morning we’d be in a better place.”

Not all of the breaches in the border fence had been fully closed, and more militants could still be crossing into Israeli territory from Gaza, Hecht said.

Schools remain closed in much of the country, airlines have curtailed flights to Tel Aviv’s main airport, and volunteers are donating blood and food. The death toll rose to 700 in Israel, although the number was clouded by the continued fighting and the uncertain fate of many Israelis and Palestinians in embattled areas.

Israel has responded to the assault by striking nearly 500 targets in Gaza, leveling whole buildings that they say are linked to Hamas, the militant group that controls the territory. At least 413 Palestinians have been killed, according to authorities in Gaza.

Israeli troops and tanks were being sent to the south, preparing for the next stage of the war, which appeared to be a ground invasion of Gaza. The timing and scale of the next steps, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said would destroy Hamas, were unclear because Hamas and other militants held at least 150 Israelis hostage.

And Israel appears to be nowhere closer to answering key questions about how it was caught unaware by the attack Saturday despite having some of the most extensive and sophisticated intelligence, missile defense and spying networks in the world.

Here’s what you need to know about the war:

– The United States is working to fulfill several specific requests from Israel for military assistance, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. He declined to provide additional details about what Israel had asked for and what the United States would offer.

– Israeli security officials said up to 109 people were believed to have been killed at a music festival early Saturday when militants swept into the concert site 3 miles from the Gaza border. Videos show panicked concertgoers fleeing south into the desert and more than 100 abandoned vehicles on the side of the road.

– The Pentagon on Sunday announced it was sending additional munitions to Israel and moving more Navy warships, including an aircraft carrier, and combat aircraft closer to Israel in a show of support.

– The United Nations humanitarian agency said that 123,538 Palestinians had been displaced in Gaza since the fighting began Saturday. Israeli airstrikes had targeted houses and apartment complexes, some of which were struck before notice was given to the residents, the statement said. Gaza’s sole power plant could run out of fuel within days, the UN said.

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