Palestinian death toll rises in Gaza fighting; Israel thwarts infiltration attempts

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 The Palestinian death toll rose to more than 500 on Monday as Israel announced that it had prevented two more attempts by Hamas militants to infiltrate the nation via tunnels from the Gaza Strip.

As international concern mounted over the growing casualties on both sides in the conflict, now in its 14th day, yet another diplomatic push was underway to bring about a cease-fire. U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon were both expected in Cairo later Monday in hopes of finding a diplomatic resolution that has so far proved elusive.

Israeli airstrikes continued to bombard Gaza on Monday — more than 50 Hamas targets were attacked, including two weapons manufacturing sites, six underground rocket launchers and five tunnels, Israel’s military said.

Over the past few hours, Israel reported intense rocket fire across its southern communities, reaching up to Tel Aviv, its second-largest city, where two rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile-defense shield midmorning Monday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who held a security briefing in the south Monday morning with Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and Benny Gantz, the military’s chief of the general staff, said in a statement afterward that while the army had achieved some of its main goals, the “operation would be expanded in order to restore quiet to Israeli citizens.”

The Israeli military said in a statement that its troops also detected “two terror squads” trying to enter Israel through two tunnels from northern Gaza. An airstrike struck one group of militants, and soldiers engaged in a battle with the other group, killing 10 fighters, the military said. Israeli news reports said that a number of Israeli soldiers were also killed, but the military did not immediately confirm it.

The Gaza Health Ministry said Monday that the death toll in Gaza has risen to 511 since the conflict began on June 8. The casualties included 20 bodies found in Khan Younis in southern Gaza, killed in an apparent Israeli airstrike, according to the Associated Press.

The number of Palestinians seeking refuge with the United Nations also rose overnight, growing to at least 85,000 people now living in 67 shelters, mostly at schools, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency said Monday. In all, U.N. agencies report that more than 100,000 Gazans have been displaced from their homes.

The United Nations also said a preliminary review in Gaza found that more than 72 percent of those killed were civilians, not militants, and include large numbers of women and children. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs said the high numbers of children and noncombatants raises “concern about respect for the principle of distinction and proportionality under international humanitarian law.”

The assault on the Shijaiyah district on the eastern outskirts of Gaza City, the new front line, continued Monday morning, though the intensity appeared to be lower than Sunday’s battles and barrages. Two bodies of those killed on Sunday — the bloodiest day of the conflict so far — were recovered in the eastern Gaza district on Monday.

More than 100 Palestinians were killed in heavy bombardment and street battles in Gaza on Sunday and 13 Israeli soldiers were slain in the most intense day of fighting in Israel’s current offensive against Hamas, officials said.

Two of the Israeli soldiers killed were American citizens who had come to Israel, like many Jewish Americans, to volunteer in Israel’s army. One, Max Steinberg, was from Woodland Hills, Calif., while the other, Nissim Sean Carmeli, was from South Padre Island, Tex., said Israel’s military.

The State Department late Sunday confirmed the deaths. “Out of respect for those affected by this, we have nothing further at this time,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.

Israel said it pummeled a neighborhood in east Gazabecause the warren of shops and concrete-block homes was the site of frequent rocket launches and that it concealed a network of tunnels dug by Hamas fighters and allied militant factions.

When Israeli troops went in, they were surprised by the tenacity, training and weaponry of their opponents, Israeli military officers said. They said Israeli soldiers were repeatedly hit by Gaza militants firing from windows, employing land mines and setting booby traps.

“It was a very hard battle there,” a senior Israeli military official said. “I have to admit that we were facing good fighters from the other side.”

The seven-hour attack by Israeli artillery and tank shells, followed by small-arms gun battles in the streets, left the district in ruins. There were bodies in the streets and gray-faced Palestinians being dug out of the rubble and stacked into ambulances. Thousands of residents had fled in the middle of the night, many barefoot.

The Gaza Health Ministry said 70 Palestinians were killed in the fighting in the Shijaiyah district. Hamas health officials, in keeping with their practice, did not say whether the dead were civilians or fighters.

Sami Abu Zohri, a Hamas spokesman, called the Israeli offensive in Shijaiyah “a massacre” and “a war crime.”

The Hamas military also asserted that its fighters had captured an Israeli soldier. Abu Obaida, a spokesman for Hamas’s armed wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, appeared on Hamas TV to make the claim. Minutes later, there were fireworks on the streets and shouts of “God is great!” from loudspeakers in mosques.

An Israeli military spokesman said the army was investigating and did not confirm the abduction. “There’s no kidnapped Israeli soldier, and those rumors are untrue,” Ron Prosor, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, told reporters in New York.

washingtonpost

 

Raghavan reported from Tel Aviv. Eglash reported from Kfar Aza, Israel.

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