At least 97 Palestinians killed in Israeli offensive as thousands flee Gaza homes

Deadliest single day in the coastal enclave in the past five years takes Palestinian death toll past 400; a third of victims are women and children

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 July, 2014, 2:48pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 8:18pm

At least 97 Gazan Palestinians and 13 soldiers were killed yesterday as Israel ramped up its military offensive in the bloodiest single day in the enclave in five years.

As regional leaders met in Doha for urgent talks on a ceasefire, the Palestinian death toll soared to 435, with the emergency services saying more than a third of the victims were women and children.

Watch: Gaza: Shejaiya residents flee after 60 dead in Israeli offensive

The Israeli army said 13 soldiers from the same brigade had been killed in a series of attacks inside Gaza on the third day of a major ground operation.

"Over the course of the day, 13 soldiers from the IDF's Golani Brigade were killed in combat in the Gaza Strip," the army said.

Their deaths raised to 18 the number of soldiers killed since Israel's ground operation began late on Thursday - the most Israeli soldiers killed in combat since the 2006 Lebanon war.

Most of yesterday's Palestinian victims were killed in a blistering hours-long Israeli assault on Shejaiya near Gaza City, which began before dawn and has so far claimed 62 Palestinian lives.  

With ambulances unable to reach the area, the International Committee of the Red Cross called for an urgent temporary ceasefire to allow paramedics to evacuate the dead and wounded. Both sides agreed.

Inside the ravaged neighbourhood, there were hellish scenes of carnage and chaos as a convoy of ambulances moved in to make the most of the calm.

Entire buildings were collapsed on themselves, while others were still ablaze, sending pillars of black smoke skywards.

There were also bodies, blackened and charred beyond recognition, some with limbs missing.

As the violence raged, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas arrived in Qatar to discuss a ceasefire with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was expected to arrive later.

In two other confrontations, Palestinian gunmen jumped out of tunnels and shot at soldiers who returned fire. Two of the gunmen were killed. Another militant died when the explosive vest he was wearing went off, the military said.

In one instance, the militants were found with tranquilisers and handcuffs, indicating they “intended to abduct Israelis,” according to the military.

Clashes persisted into late on Saturday. Palestinians reported heavy Israeli tank fire on the border areas of Gaza. Doctors said a son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter of senior Hamas leader Khalil al-Haya were killed early on Sunday when their house was hit by a tank shell in Gaza City. In the southern city of Rafah, three brothers were killed when an airstrike targeted the family house, said health official Ashraf al-Kidra.

In Israel, a Gaza rocket killed a man near the southern city of Dimona and wounded four people, police said, marking the second Israeli civilian casualty from the fighting.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri on Saturday repeated an appeal for the two sides to adopt the ceasefire, saying Egypt’s plan is the only one on the table, despite efforts from Hamas backers Turkey and Qatar to broker a deal.

“It meets the needs of both sides,” he said. “We will continue to propose it. We hope both sides accept it.”

So far, truce efforts have been rejected by Hamas. Undaunted by the Israeli bombardment by land, sea and air, it has continued its own assaults.

Following a night of terror in Shejaiya, thousands began fleeing for their lives at first light after heavy shelling left casualties lying in the streets.

Women and children were among the dead, as were a Palestinian paramedic and a cameraman killed when the ambulance they were in was hit.

"He wasn't a fighter, he was a fighter for humanity," wailed one relative as the family buried him.

"He was an ambulance worker. Did he deserve to die?"

So far, the UN's Relief and Works Agency has opened 61 of its schools to shelter those fleeing the most heavily bombarded areas, with more than 81,000 people taking refuge in them.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has blamed civilian casualties on Hamas, accusing it of "using innocent civilians as human shields".

Although Israel said earlier yesterday thatit was expanding its ground operation to destroy the network of tunnels used by militants to stage cross-border attacks. Netanyahu also said troops could end their mission "fairly quickly".

But he demanded international action to demilitarise the tiny coastal enclave.

"I think the international community has to... undertake a programme to demilitarise Gaza and to change the situation because it's unacceptable," he told CNN.


Israel warns foreign journalists covering Gaza Strip

Israel has warned foreign journalists it is not responsible for their safety in the Gaza Strip, where it has launched an offensive against Palestinian militants.

"Gaza and its vicinity are a battleground. Covering the hostilities exposes journalists to life-threatening danger," a Government Press Office statement said. "Israel is not in any way responsible for injury or damage that may occur as a result of field reporting."

The press office, which accredits journalists based in Israel, many of whom also cover events in the Palestinian Territories, charged Islamist group Hamas was using journalists as human shields and advised reporters to take "every possible precaution".

The Israeli military said that since the offensive began, it had struck more than 2,300 sites in the enclave and that more than 1,663 rockets have been launched by Palestinian militants toward its territory.