Bodies of Palestinians are laid out at Shifa hospital in Gaza after Israeli missile strikes. Photograph: Suhaib Salem/REUTERS
Mayhem, death and deafening destruction came to Gaza at 11.30am yesterday when Israel dropped a first wave of bombs on the Hamas security compounds it had determined to wipe off the face of the map. By the end of "Operation Solid Lead", about 60 aircraft had launched about 100 strikes and at least 205 people were reported to have been killed. It was the most devastating attack on Gaza since 1967. Black smoke billowed over the tiny strip of land as shoppers, schoolchildren, shopkeepers, workers and pedestrians ran to find shelter, emptying the streets.
Around the tightly packed city area, where several members of Hamas's security force compounds were tucked between residential buildings, sirens wailed as ambulances sped through the streets to find piles of dead bodies. Most of the dead were police officers. About 700 people had been injured, according to Hamas.
Doctors and ambulance officers rushed between buildings, ferrying the wounded they hoped to save and leaving those who had already died outside the mortuary, which was already overflowing with corpses. Said Masri sat in the middle of a Gaza City street, close to a security compound, slapping his face, covering his head with dust from the bombed-out building and wailing: "My son is gone, my son is gone." The shopkeeper said he had sent his nine-year-old son out to buy cigarettes minutes before the air strikes began and now could not find him. "May I burn like the cigarettes, may Israel burn," he shouted. Some of the air strikes happened as children were leaving school, causing panic in the streets.
The hospitals overflowed. One doctor at Shifa hospital, Gaza's main treatment centre, said: "We are treating people on the floor, in the corridors. We have no more space. We don't know who is here and what the priority is to treat." Earlier in the week, as a consequence of Israel's 18-month-long blockade of Gaza, some hospitals had announced that they would be restricted to performing emergency operations only. As the casualties lined corridors and wards, it was clear that medical resources had long since been stretched beyond breaking point. Shifa's hospital, which stumbles along on an erratic electricity supply and a severe shortage of medications, surgical equipment, dilapidated machinery and inadequate supplies of food, disinfectants and cleaning products, was heaving with dead bodies and injured.
On Friday, there had been the false promise of at least a relative return to normality. Israel reopened crossings into Gaza to let in a humanitarian shipment of food and fuel. Yesterday many Palestinians sent their children to school and went about their daily business. But the signs from Israel had been ominous. In Cairo the Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, had described the daily launching of rockets by Hamas across the border as "unbearable". Seven thousand have been launched at nearby Israeli towns since army barracks and settlements were withdrawn from Gaza in 2005. Up until yesterday, Gazan militants had killed 16 Israeli civilians living in southern Israeli towns, since they began launching rockets in 2001.
Yesterday that death toll rose by one when militants fired about 20 rockets, a relatively low number compared with earlier in the week, when they bombarded the Negev desert areas with more than 70 in a day. One man in Netivot was killed and several more injured. "No country in the world can or would tolerate the ongoing security situation in the Gaza area," said Israeli military spokesman Benjamin Rutland.
The Israeli media had been predicting a military action early this week. In the event, Israel's patience had run out earlier than that. While Gaza cowered under the ferocious double wave of attacks, Israeli citizens on the other side of the border applauded what they saw as an act of justice and revenge against Hamas. David Buskliah, the mayor of Sderot, said: "I'm proud to be an Israeli today. I lend my full support to the commanders of the Israeli Defence Force in their campaign to put an end to eight years of attacks to innocent men, women and children. I hope that their actions today help return peace to my town and the neighbouring communities."
Others were more circumspect, taking to shelters after being warned by the military that this was just the beginning of a larger operation. The Home Front Command ordered residents in Sderot and the Gaza periphery within a 20-kilometre radius of the Strip to stay inside reinforced saferooms for as long as possible.
Israeli police were also put on a state of high alert in Israeli Arab towns, where already simmering racial tensions were likely to reach boiling point in the wake of yesterday's attacks. A Hamas response seems inevitable. "I don't believe in ceasefires, I think Palestinians should respond," said Mohammed Omer, a 29-year-old teacher who was rushing to donate blood at the Shifa hospital.
Tempers flared around the Arab world after the Israeli assault, and sympathy for the Gazans was running unusually strong. The Arab League said it would convene an emergency meeting to put pressure on the international community to halt further attacks. Egypt, which has kept its border with Gaza closed, effectively reinforcing Israel's blockade, said it would open its frontiers to the wounded, despite sending security reinforcements to stop Palestinians from trying to break out of the besieged territory in case of an attack.
In Jordan and Beirut, people took to the streets denouncing the attacks and called on the international community to stop further Israeli aggression. In Ramallah in the West Bank, home to the US-backed Palestinian Authority, which opposes Hamas's rule of Gaza, protesters called for unity talks between Hamas and its rival group, Fatah. The violence, from both sides, may have only just begun.