Middle East

Overnight airstrikes raise Gaza death toll over 300

A Palestinian child walks on debris from a destroyed house, following an overnight Israeli strike in Beit Lahiya, in northern Gaza strip, Saturday, July 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

GAZA: A Gaza health official says the death toll from Israel's 12-day offensive against Hamas militants has topped 300.

Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra said Saturday that overnight airstrikes killed nine people. The Israeli military says three soldiers were wounded, one seriously, in the second night of Israel's ground offensive in Gaza.

Israel launched a ground operation late Thursday after becoming increasingly exasperated with unrelenting rocket fire from Gaza, especially following Hamas' rejection of an Egyptian cease-fire plan earlier this week.

Israeli officials say the offensive is aimed at destroying Hamas tunnels dug into Israel and that it could last up to two weeks.

Israel's military chief Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz visited troops on the Gaza border early Saturday and said "a strategic national patience is necessary" to complete the operation.

Israel had intensified its land offensive in Gaza with artillery, tanks and gunboats Friday and warned it could “significantly widen” a campaign that is claiming the lives of ever greater numbers of civilians.

The Israeli military said Friday it killed 17 Palestinian gunmen while another 13 surrendered and were taken for questioning after the infantry and tank assault began in the Hamas-dominated territory.

One Israeli soldier was killed and several others were wounded in the Gaza Strip operations, in which some 150 targets, including 21 concealed rocket launchers and four tunnels, have been attacked, according to the military.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will leave Saturday for the Middle East to meet Israelis and Palestinians, a senior official told an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said Ban would leave for the region “to express solidarity with the Israelis and Palestinians” amid the Gaza crisis.

The Palestinian deaths Friday included eight members of a single family – two men, two women and four children – killed in tank shelling on their home in Beit Hanun, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said.

Shortly before, four children ranging in age from two to 13 were killed in tank shelling east of Gaza City, Qudra said.

Attacks in Rafah, which straddles the border with Egypt, claimed five lives in several different attacks, among them a five-month-old baby.

Figures provided by the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights show civilians account for more than 80 percent of the victims of Israel’s assault since July 8 to halt rocket fire by fighters from Hamas, which controls the coastal strip.

At least 2,200 Palestinians have also been wounded.

U.S. President Barack Obama said he had spoken to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, underscoring U.S. backing for Israel to defend itself but raising concerns over the consequences of wider conflict.

Obama said he reaffirmed strong U.S. support but also made clear the United States ... and our allies are deeply concerned about the risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life.

The Israeli land advance followed 10 days of barrages against Gaza from air and sea, hundreds of rockets fired by Hamas into Israel and failed attempts by Egypt, a broker of ceasefires in previous Israeli-Palestinian flare-ups, to secure a truce.

A French diplomatic source said France had asked Qatar to use its influence with Hamas to try to negotiate a cease-fire.

Gaza residents said Israeli forces moved several hundred meters into the north of the enclave and their deployment in the south of the territory was slightly deeper.

Rocket salvoes, many of them intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile shield system, continued against southern Israel and the Tel Aviv metropolitan area but caused no casualties, police said.

“We chose to start this operation after we exhausted other options and reached the conclusion that without it we could pay a much higher price,” Netanyahu told reporters before a special Cabinet session.

“My instructions ... to the Israeli army, with the approval of the Security Cabinet, is to prepare for the possibility of a widening – a significant widening – of the ground operation.”

Israel says its forces have focused so far on seeking out tunnels Palestinian militants might use for cross-border raids and moving weaponry.

To back up regular forces, Israel said it was calling up 18,000 military reservists, adding to the 30,000 already mobilized.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri responded with defiance to the Israeli escalation: “Netanyahu is killing our children and will pay the price. The ground invasion doesn’t frighten us and the occupation army will sink in Gaza’s mud.”

Hamas wants Israel and Egypt, whose government is at odds with Hamas, to lift border restrictions that have deepened Gaza’s economic hardship and unemployment.

Hamas said its men were hitting Israeli tanks with mortar rounds and setting off bombs against troops who crossed the sandy frontier under smokescreens.

“It was a loud night. The armed men clashed with the tanks that advanced from northern side of the town for about 300 meters,” said Amer Yamen, 37, a resident of Beit Hanoun near the barbed-wire border with Israel.

Dozens of Palestinian families, forewarned by evacuation notices Israel had disseminated with leaflet drops and automated phone messages, fled toward the interior, leaving the streets empty.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 19, 2014, on page 1.




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