Gaza death toll rises to 355 as Israel expands offensive
GAZA/JERUSALEM: Fresh Israeli bombardments killed at least 12 people in Gaza on Sunday, medics said, as the army intensified a 13-day campaign against the besieged Palestinian territory.
Israel said it had expanded its ground offensive and militants kept up rocket fire into the Jewish state with no sign of a diplomatic breakthrough to end the worst fighting between Israel and Hamas in two years.
Gaza residents said land and naval shellings were the heaviest in 13 days of fighting.
Sunday’s deaths brought the toll to 355 Palestinians, and five Israelis, including two civilians, who have died since the operation began on July 8.
Explosions rocked the coastal enclave overnight and shells fired by Israeli naval forces lit up the sky.
Israeli tank shelling killed one Palestinian and hit houses in the northeastern Shejaia district, where residents called radio stations pleading for evacuation.
An Israeli air strike there on the house of senior Hamas official Khalil Al-Hayya killed his son and daughter-in-law and two children, hospital officials said. Near the southern town of Rafah shelling killed four Palestinians, health officials said.
In Israel, sirens sounded in towns near Gaza, warning of approaching rockets.
Heavy artillery shelling east of Gaza City early in the morning killed at least five people, emergency spokesman Ashraf Al-Qudra said.
In one artillery hit in Shejaiya east of Gaza City, a woman, two children and the son of senior Hamas official Khalil Al-Hayya were killed, Qudra told AFP.
Earlier, tank fire killed 56-year-old Hosni Al-Absi in the southern city of Rafah.
An air strike in Rafah killed three young men, all brothers, and wounded 10 more people, Qudra said. Hours later, another strike in Rafah killed two people.
Shortly after that, a strike in the central Strip killed a 29-year-old man.
During Israel’s operation to stamp out rocket fire from the besieged territory, some 1,333 rockets have hit Israel, with 360 intercepted by its Iron Dome defense system.
Israel’s military has hit thousands of targets in the besieged coastal territory.
Nearly 2,400 Palestinians have been wounded in the biggest confrontation in and around Gaza since Operation Cast Lead, a bloody 22-day offensive which ended in January 2009.
Gaza’s health ministry said in a statement early Sunday that the Israeli artillery attack on Shejaiya had targeted ambulances trying to evacuate the wounded.
Israel sent ground forces into Hamas-dominated Gaza on Thursday after 10 days of heavy air and naval barrages failed to stop rocket fire, some of which reached deep into Israel, from the Palestinian territory.
The military said in a statement on Sunday it had sent additional forces into the Palestinian enclave. Israel has vowed to destroy a network of tunnels out of Gaza and hunt down the militants’ stockpiles of missiles.
Gaza officials said at least 345 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have been killed in the 13-day conflict. On Israel’s side, five soldiers and two civilians have died.
Diplomatic efforts to secure a cease-fire involving, among others, Egypt, Qatar, France and the United Nations, have failed to make headway.
Qatar was due to host a meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday, a senior Qatari source told Reuters. Ban was due during the week to travel to Kuwait, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan, a UN statement said.
The Qatari source said Abbas was also due to meet Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.
Western-backed Abbas in April struck a deal with Islamist Hamas that led to the formation of a Palestinian unity government, seven years after the group seized control of Gaza from Abbas’s Fatah party.
Hamas has rejected Egyptian efforts to end fighting, saying any deal must include an end to a blockade of the coastal area and a recommitment to a cease-fire reached after an eight-day war in Gaza in 2012.
Egypt said on Saturday it had no plans to revise its cease-fire proposal. A Hamas source in Doha said the group has no plans to change its conditions for a cease-fire.
Israel is wary of mediation by Qatar, which hosts a large number of exiled Islamists from across the Middle East including Meshaal, and Israeli officials have said Egypt must be a party to any cease-fire deal.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who flew to Israel after meetings in Egypt and Jordan, said on Saturday efforts to secure a cease-fire had failed.
“On the contrary, there’s a risk of more civilian casualties that worries us,” Fabius said, after talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv.
Hostilities between the two sides escalated following the killing last month of three Jewish students that Israel blames on Hamas. Hamas neither confirmed nor denied involvement.
The apparent revenge murder of a Palestinian youth in Jerusalem, for which Israel has charged three Israelis, further fueled tension.
Israeli bulldozers and engineers worked along a 1.5-km-wide strip of Gaza’s eastern frontier, uncovering 13 tunnels, at least one of them 30 meters deep, military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said.
About 95 rocket launchers were also found and destroyed in the sweep, he added.
Searches were continuing in what he described as an open-ended mission that had “severely impeded Hamas capabilities.”