GAZA CITY / OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israeli warplanes and tanks Sunday battered a crowded neighborhood of Gaza City, killing at least 65 Palestinians in the deadliest single incident of an onslaught that has claimed well over 400 lives.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said 37 other Palestinians were also killed Sunday, bringing the death toll since Israeli air and naval bombardments began on July 8 to 434, many of them civilians. Some 2,600 Palestinians have been wounded, it said.
The assault on the Shejaiya district came after 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza, and late Sunday the armed wing of the Hamas movement said it had captured an Israeli soldier in the fighting.
“The Israeli soldier Shaul Aaron is in the hands of the Qassam Brigades,” a spokesman using the nom-de-guerre Abu Obeida said in a televised address. The Israeli military said it was checking the claim.
The 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in several separate incidents in Shejaiya, including gunbattles and rocket attacks. In the deadliest, Gaza fighters detonated a bomb near an armored personnel carrier, killing seven soldiers inside, the army said. In another incident, three soldiers were killed when they became trapped in a burning building, it said.
It was the Israeli military’s highest one-day death toll since the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Thousands of Palestinians streamed out of Shejaiya, some traveling by foot and others piling into the backs of trucks and sitting on the hoods of cars filled with families trying to get away.
As the tank shells began to land, Shejaiya residents called radio stations pleading for evacuation.
An airstrike on the home of Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas official, killed his son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, according to hospital officials.
Shifa Hospital’s director, Naser Tattar, said 17 children, 14 women and four elderly people were among the dead, while nearly 400 others were wounded in the Israeli assault on the neighborhood.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of carrying out a massacre in Shejaiya and declared three days of mourning.
He also met with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Doha, Qatar, as part of the flurry of political and diplomatic contacts underway to end the Israeli offensive.
Israel’s army said it was targeting Hamas militants whom it alleged had fired rockets from Shejaiya and built tunnels and command centers there. The army said it had warned locals two days earlier to leave.
In a telephone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – their second in three days – U.S. President Barack Obama “raised serious concern about the growing number of casualties” on both sides of the conflict, the White House said.
Netanyahu, addressing a news conference in Tel Aviv, pledged to press on with “restoring quiet” while “significantly” damaging Hamas and other militant groups’ infrastructure in Gaza. “We are undeterred. We shall continue the operation as long as is required,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu has accused Hamas of using non-combatants as human shields, and told CNN the army was concentrating on military targets.
“All civilian casualties are unintended by us, but actually intended by Hamas. They want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can. ... It’s gruesome,” Netanyahu said. “They use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. They want the more dead the better.”
The U.N. Relief and Works Agency said 81,000 displaced people had now taken refuge in 61 UNRWA shelters in Gaza.
Egypt, Qatar, France and the United Nations, among others, have all been pushing, with little sign of progress, for a permanent ceasefire in the worst surge of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in two years.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he might travel to the region soon to try to aid truce efforts. He said he supported Israel’s efforts to destroy tunnels it says militants use for infiltration attempts and to hide weaponry.
“We support Israel’s right to defend itself against rockets that are continuing to come in,” Kerry told Fox News.
However, Kerry was overheard expressing what appeared to be pointed concern over the mounting civilian deaths.
In a conversation caught on an open microphone before an interview, Kerry made what seemed to be a sarcastic remark about Israel’s insistence that it was trying to avoid civilian casualties.
“It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation. It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” he said during the call, which was broadcast on “Fox News Sunday.”
Speaking in Doha, where he met with Abbas and senior Qatari officials, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Israel to “exercise maximum restraint” and spare the lives of civilians, condemning the Jewish state’s “atrocious action” in Shejaiya.
He was due to travel to Kuwait, Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Jordan during the week.
Hamas has already rejected one Egyptian-brokered truce, saying any deal must include an end to a blockade of the coastal area and a recommitment to a ceasefire reached after an eight-day war in Gaza in 2012.
Hamas also wants its Turkish and Qatari allies to be involved in any truce negotiations.
The fighting, including heavy Israeli tank fire, killed scores of Palestinians, forced thousands to flee and damaged or destroyed dozens of homes.
Hostilities escalated following the killing last month of three Jewish students that Israel blames on Hamas. Hamas has neither confirmed nor denied involvement.
The apparent revenge murder of a Palestinian youth in Jerusalem, for which Israel has charged three Israelis, further fuelled tension.