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Gaza toll soars as Israel pounds north

Updated July 20, 2014

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Smoke rises after an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, in the northern Gaza Strip, Saturday, July 19, 2014. — Photo by AP
Smoke rises after an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, in the northern Gaza Strip, Saturday, July 19, 2014. — Photo by AP
An Israeli convoy manoeuvres outside central Gaza Strip July 19, 2014. — Photo by Reuters
An Israeli convoy manoeuvres outside central Gaza Strip July 19, 2014. — Photo by Reuters

GAZA CITY: A Gaza City neighborhood came under heavy tank fire Sunday as Israel widened its ground offensive against Hamas, causing hundreds of panicked residents to flee, including a woman in a wheelchair waving a white flag.

At least 30 people were killed in Gaza's Shijaiyah neighborhood, and five more bodies were believed buried under the rubble of homes, health officials said.

Meanwhile, Israel's military said 13 soldiers were killed in a series of attacks in the Gaza Strip, the heaviest Israeli death toll in a single day of battle in years.

Earlier, Hamas militants said they had ambushed Israeli troops and detonated explosives around their vehicle in the Palestinian territory. Other militants said they had attacked soldiers in a Gaza house.

They are the latest casualties in a nearly two-week conflict that has killed some 380 Palestinians and 20 Israelis.

After daybreak, dozens of wounded from Shijaiyah were rushed to Gaza City's central Shifa Hospital.

Frantic parents carried children wounded by shrapnel and the emergency room quickly overflowed, forcing doctors to treat some patients on mattresses in a hallway.

“The gate of hell has opened, and shrapnel came through the windows,” said Shijaiyah resident Jawad Hassanain, speaking by phone. “The house shook, so I took my mother, my children, my brother as well, and we started seeking refuge in a nearby building. “

“From 12:30 am until 4 am, all you could hear is heavy bombardment, the smell of fire and the smell of death. By 4:30, and after the call for the prayer, we were able to get in an ambulance,” which took them to his sister's neighborhood, he said.

Israeli troops pushed into Gaza late Thursday after more than a week of airstrikes failed to halt unrelenting Palestinian rocket fire that has increasingly targeted major Israeli cities.

Israel has said the operation is aimed at halting the rockets as well as destroying cross-border tunnels that militants have used to stage raids into Israel.

The military said it has hit more than 2,500 targets in Gaza, including 1,100 rocket launchers, during the 13 days of fighting. It said that some 70 militants were killed and another 13 brought to Israel for questioning.

Gaza militants have fired more than 1,760 rockets at Israeli cities since July 8, the military said.

Throughout the night, loud explosions shook Gaza as Israeli flares lit up the night sky and fighter jets flew low over the coastal territory.

The Hamas military wing said its fighters exchanged fire with Israeli forces in Shijaiyah and a nearby neighborhood.

The sound of gunfire could be heard from the center of the city.

In a separate confrontation, fighters ambushed Israeli troops near the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, the group said, adding that Israeli helicopter gunships had joined the battle.

The heavy fighting came as UN chief Ban Ki-moon headed to Qatar to try to push stalled cease-fire efforts forward.

Hamas last week rejected an Egyptian call on both sides to halt hostilities, saying it first wants guarantees that Israel and Egypt will significantly ease their border blockade of Gaza, which has been ruled by the Islamic militant group since 2007.

Hamas has sought involvement of other countries, such as Qatar, in any cease-fire negotiations, saying Egypt cannot be the sole mediator.

The militant group is deeply distrustful of Egypt's rulers, who last year deposed a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo.

Since the start of Israel-Hamas fighting almost two weeks ago, 378 Palestinians have been killed and 2,700 wounded, according to Gaza Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra.

More than one-fourth of the deaths have been reported since the start of the ground offensive late Thursday.

Two Israeli soldiers died in the Gaza fighting late Saturday and early Sunday morning, bringing the Israeli military death toll to five in the three days since ground operations began.

Two Israeli civilians have perished from Hamas rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli territory.

In Shijaiyah, the heavy shelling began around midnight as tanks reached the edge of the neighborhood, residents said. In the first hours of shelling, it was too dangerous for ambulances to approach and residents said they saw dead and wounded in the streets.

Casualties were later evacuated. Hundreds of residents fled Shijaiyah after daybreak, including a woman in a wheelchair who waved a white flag.

Columns of smoke rose from the neighborhood as the sound of shelling echoed from inside.

A man walking in the street said his son was trapped in the family house and that he needed someone to help rescue him.

He then got into an ambulance to reach his house, but tank fire hit nearby and the ambulance quickly turned around to get away.

The bodies of a man and a woman could be seen in the rubble of a house that had been completely destroyed.

Among those killed in Shijaiyah on Sunday were Osama al-Haya, a son of senior Hamas leader Khalil al-Haya. Osama al-Haya's wife and two children, ages four and six, were also killed, Palestinian health officials said.

Some residents tried to find refuge with relatives, while others went to UN schools that have been serving as temporary shelters since the start of the fighting.

Some 61,000 Palestinians are already staying in United Nations shelters, according to UNRWA, the UN refugee agency for Palestinians.

The agency said it planned to open more schools.