Gaza death toll tops 340 as UN chief heads to Middle East in peace effort

Death toll in Israeli offensive in Gaza rises to at least 333, with 2,250 Palestinians and several Israelis wounded, as UN chief Ban Ki-moon departs for the region

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 July, 2014, 5:05pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 July, 2014, 6:43am

Israeli air strikes pounded Gaza again, taking the death toll from a 12-day bombardment to 341, as UN chief Ban Ki-moon headed to the region to join truce efforts.

The United Nations secretary general would leave for the region yesterday to help Israelis and Palestinians "end the violence and find a way forward", undersecretary general for political affairs Jeffrey Feltman told the Security Council.

Ban's push for peace came as Israel was poised to intensify a ground operation inside the besieged Palestinian territory it says is necessary to stop militants tunnelling into the Jewish state.

Despite the pounding, Palestinian commandos managed to infiltrate, triggering a skirmish with an army patrol that left two Israeli soldiers dead, as Gaza's bloodiest conflict since 2009 showed no signs of letting up.

The United States urged Israel, its ally, to do more to limit the high civilian death toll, while supporting the country's right to defend itself. President Barack Obama said Washington was "deeply concerned about the risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life".

He added that Washington was "hopeful" that Israel would operate "in a way that minimises civilian casualties".

But Israeli army chief Lieutenant General Benny Gantz said the army was "expanding the ground phase of the operation".

"There will be moments of hardship," he warned in a briefing to the military, anticipating further Israeli casualties.

Troops killed a Palestinian militant who tunnelled into southern Israel, but others managed to withdraw back into Gaza, an army statement said.

"Several terrorists infiltrated Israel through a tunnel from the central Gaza Strip," it said, adding they fired a machine gun and anti-tank missile at an army patrol.

Troops "returned fire, killing a terrorist and forcing the rest back into Gaza." Two Israeli soldiers died from their wounds.

Hamas' military wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, said it had carried out the raid.

There have now been five Israeli deaths so far since the campaign to stamp out rocket fire from Gaza began on July 8.

In a separate incident, the army said, militants had strapped explosives to a donkey in an attempt to attack troops. "Yesterday [Friday] evening, there was at least one such attempt, in which a donkey suspiciously began to approach forces," it said. "The forces engaged the donkey and it exploded at a safe distance."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had ordered the military to be ready for "a significant broadening of the ground activity".

He said it was necessary to deal with the tunnels, but admitted there was "no guarantee of 100 per cent success".