GAZA CITY: Israel’s operation against Hamas saw one of its bloodiest days yesterday, with 46 Palestinians killed in Gaza and two Israeli soldiers and a civilian killed by militant fire.
As Israeli warplanes bombarded Gaza from the air, and ground troops pressed an assault on land, the overall Palestinian death toll on day 12 of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge rose to 342, with rights groups warning that a growing number of victims were children.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon was headed for the region yesterday to bolster intense diplomatic efforts aimed at ending the bloodshed in and around Gaza.
Israel, meanwhile, warned it was ready to intensify its ground assault aimed at destroying a network of cross-border tunnels.
Despite the blistering offensive, Palestinian commandos in central Gaza managed to use tunnels to infiltrate southern Israel in three separate cases, killing two soldiers in one incident with four of their men killed in the attacks.
Also yesterday, an Israeli Bedouin was killed when a rocket hit his encampment in southern Israel in an attack which also wounded four of his family, among them two young children, police said.
The deaths raised to five the total number of Israelis killed since July 8 — three soldiers and two civilians — in the deadliest confrontation between Israel and Hamas militants since 2009.
According to army data, 76 rockets and mortars hit Israel yesterday, with another 14 intercepted, bringing the number of projectiles hitting Israel in the past 12 days to 1,321, with 356 intercepted.
Israel’s Chief-of-Staff, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, said the army was “expanding the ground phase of the operation”, warning there would be “moments of hardship”, alluding to the possibility of further Israeli casualties.
Israeli bulldozers and engineers worked along a mile-wide strip of Gaza’s eastern frontier, uncovering 13 tunnels, at least one of them 30 metres deep, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said. About 95 rocket launchers were also found and destroyed in the sweep, he added.
Searches were continuing on what he described as an open-ended mission that had “severely impeded Hamas capabilities”.
The Israeli military urged Palestinians to flee an ever-growing area of Gaza ahead of further military action in the Mediterranean enclave. Locals say about half of the territory’s 1.8-million population have been told to move.
With both the Israeli and Egyptian borders sealed off, Gazans say they have few places to escape to.
In Gaza, after a relative lull on Friday, violence picked up again, with intensifying tank shelling and air strikes killing 46 people yesterday.
Among yesterday’s dead were two six-year-olds and a toddler, emergency services spokesman Ashraf Al Qudra said.
The increasing number of children killed in the conflict is causing a growing outcry, with a joint statement from the NGOs War Child and Defence for Children International saying more children had been killed than militants.
Figures provided by the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, indicate 73 of the victims were under the age of 18.
“Children should be protected from the violence, and they should not be the victims of a conflict for which they have no responsibility,” UNICEF’s Catherine Weibel said.
The UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA has opened 44 of its schools to shelter those fleeing the most heavily-bombarded areas.
So far, more than 50,000 Gazans have sought sanctuary at UN institutions, the agency said.
In Amman, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said brokering a ceasefire must be the “absolute priority,” urging all parties an Egyptian-led effort.
An Egyptian-led truce effort collapsed earlier this week after Israel accepted it but Hamas militants continued to fire rockets over the border.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said his movement had given “the demands of the resistance to all the parties concerned, including Qatar, Turkey and the Arab League” as well as Abbas and Egypt. The demands included an end of the “war on the Gaza Strip,” a complete lifting of the siege on it, opening the Rafah crossing with Egypt, freedom of movement in the border areas, cancelling the buffer zone and expanding the freedom to fish 12 nautical miles from shore.
In addition, Hamas demanded the release of its members who had been freed in a 2011 deal and recently arrested in an Israeli crackdown on the West Bank.
In northern Israel, the growing violence brought angry protestors onto the streets, where 1,500 Arab Israelis demonstrated in Kafr Kana against Israel’s military operation, police said.
In the northern coastal city Haifa some 800 Israelis held a demonstration in favour of Israel expanding its Gaza operation, while 350 Israelis at the same site were protesting against it.