Gaza toll soars as Israel 'days' from completing tunnel hunt

Gaza/Jerusalem - Israel pressed ahead with its Gaza offensive saying it was days from achieving its core goal of destroying all Islamist guerrilla cross-border attack tunnels, but a soaring Palestinian civilian toll has triggered international alarm.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet on Wednesday approved continuing the assault launched on July 8 in response to a surge of rocket attacks by Gaza's dominant Hamas Islamists. But Israel also sent a delegation to Egypt, which has been trying, with Washington's blessing, to broker a ceasefire.

Gaza officials say at least 1 361 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have now been killed in the battered enclave. Israel has lost 56 soldiers to Gaza clashes and three civilians to Palestinian shelling.

UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon was incensed on Wednesday at the deaths of at least 15 Palestinians among thousands sheltering at a school whose UN administrator said appeared to have been hit by Israeli artillery.

"It is outrageous. It is unjustifiable. And it demands accountability and justice," Ban said.

Israel said its forces were attacked by guerrillas near the school, in northern Jabalya, and had fired back. It did not immediately comment on another incident, in nearby Shejaia, in which Palestinian officials said 17 people were killed by Israeli shelling near a produce market.

"Such a massacre requires an earthquake-like response," said Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum, whose group has kept up dozens of daily rocket launches deep into Israel. The Israelis have kept casualties from the salvoes low with nine Iron Dome interceptor batteries and air-raid sirens that send people to shelters.

Rolling Israeli ground assaults on residential areas, prefaced by mass-warnings to evacuate, have displaced more than 200 000 of Gaza's 1.8 million Palestinians. The tiny territory's infrastructure is in ruin, with power and water outrages.

Israel says it is trying to avoid civilian casualties and blames these on Hamas and other Palestinian factions dug-in for urban combat.

Both sides have voiced openness to a truce, but their terms diverge dramatically. Israel wants Gaza stripped of infiltration tunnels and rocket stocks. Hamas rules that out, and seeks an end to a crippling Gaza blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt, which view the Palestinian Islamists as a security threat.

The negotiations are further complicated by the fact Israel and the United States shun Hamas as a terrorist group, while the go-betweens - Egypt, Qatar and Turkey - disagree on Gaza policy.

Tunnel hunt

In the absence of a deal, Israel has ordered its ground forces to focus on locating and destroying a warren of tunnels with which Hamas has menaced its southern towns and army bases.

Major-General Sami Turgeman, chief of Israeli forces in Gaza, said on Wednesday they were "but a few days away from destroying all the attack tunnels". The army said 32 of the secret passages had been found so far and half of them blown up.

Three Israeli soldiers were killed on Wednesday by a booby trap detonated as they uncovered a tunnel shaft, the army said. Military losses are more than five times those from the last Gaza ground war, in 2008-2009, but Israeli opinion polls show strong public support for fighting on until Hamas is quelled.

Netanyahu faces intense pressure from abroad to stand down, however. The United States and the UN Security Council have urged an immediate, unconditional ceasefire by both sides in Gaza to allow in humanitarian relief and for further talks on a more durable cessation of hostilities.

The White House on Wednesday voiced worry at the deaths in Jabalya and other UN-run shelters shelled during the clashes.

"We are extremely concerned that thousands of internally displaced Palestinians who have been called on by the Israeli military to evacuate their homes are not safe in UN-designated shelters in Gaza," said National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan.

"We also condemn those responsible for hiding weapons in United Nations facilities in Gaza," she added, referring to three cases in which the UNRWA aid agency reported rockets found at its schools.

Separately, the Pentagon said it had allowed Israel to stock up on grenades and mortar rounds from a US munitions store located in Israel as part of bilateral emergency preparedness arrangement.

Israel briefly observed a July 15 ceasefire proposed by Egypt, but Hamas continued attacks, saying its conditions had been ignored. Egyptian officials say they put together a revised truce plan this week that had been provisionally accepted by Israel, though Hamas was still undecided.

However, an Israeli security cabinet minister, Gilad Erdan, denied on Wednesday that his side was suing for a truce.

"We are not looking for a ceasefire, though of course military manoeuvres are supposed to be followed by diplomatic manoeuvres," Erdan said. "But a ceasefire must fulfil Israel's terms, a long-term calm and the demilitarization of Gaza."

Nobby Poltice 2014/07/31 06:22:19 AM
Faith Wars How holiness drives the Israeli-Arab conflict
Reality 2014/07/31 06:27:39 AM
"It is outrageous. It is unjustifiable. And it demands accountability and justice," Ban said. True, the Hamas cowards must stop hiding behind women and children and come into the open if they want to fight.
SpiritWarrior 2014/07/31 06:40:32 AM
@Reality. You know exactly what you are talking about. The Palestinian propaganda machine has not fooled you. Well done for not following the popular anti Israel and antisemitic line of thinking.
Shaun O'Meara 2014/07/31 07:04:14 AM
Please define a civilian to me. I seem to be ignorant to the definition. I have original photographs of women and children firstly training as soldiers in military uniform, that of Palestine. The training officers can be seen in full uniform and rank. I believe that they can be identified if the UN actually tried. Further more said women and children can be seen shooting at the Israeli soldiers across the border even before the assault began. Now when these so called civilians are killed the weapons they were using is quickly collected leaving only bodies on the ground. My friend is a Palestine photographer on the ground in Gaza sending these pictures to me and others. He is not a islam supporter and they often come under fire from Hamas. When people try evacuate an area they are then killed by Hamas fighter's. Only the lucky escape. You all scream at Israel. Go live under hamas law for one month. You don't know until you have experienced it for yourself. Don't judge before you have facts.
Mohammed Salajee 2014/07/31 07:06:43 AM
Last night was the worst night by far. Please read and help share this with the world. Words you wouldn't usually read. By Khalid Elmezaini from Gaza. "Last night was the worst night by far. Around 1 am the bombing was so intense that we decided to huddle together as a family in the living room away from the windows. Then a huge blast, so powerful it felt like the building was going to collapse. We hear screaming from the floor above us. We rush to the door, there is a woman carrying her 3 children running downstairs, "they hit our apartment" she screamed repeatedly. Was this a roof knock? Was her apartment really hit? Myself and 2 more ran upstairs to see, all we can see is smoke in her apartment, the bedrooms where her children sleep have smashed walls, a missile has hit her home. We couldn't take chances. With the cloths on our backs we all ran downstairs to the ground floor. Do we leave? Where do we go? There is no place to go. And if we make a run for it they will target us, they always target moving groups. We decided that the 23 families should stay on the ground floor near the stairs. The children were crying, so were their mothers, it was chaotic. Then an even bigger bomb, louder than the first, the whole building shook, rubble flying onto our building, windows and glass smashing everywhere. We took our shahada, we were convinced this is our last night, that we wouldn't make it. The bombing was intense, everywhere, north, south, east, west, it was random, every minute non-stop, we were just waiting our turn, like cattle for slaughter. 4 hours passed, non-stop shelling, then we can hear them coming, by their sound, the F16 fighter jets have arrived. By the time we made that realization, an explosion so powerful dropped us to the ground, rubble and smoke flew in, then quickly another closer one, then a third one a little further. All we could see are huge fire balls in the sky, light almost turning around corners. Moments later, a funny smell, we ran for any wet cloth, water on shirt and over the face will do. Time has passed, it was quiet for an hour. Was it over? The sun is now up, and we were happy to see it. We knew the zionist don't hit as hard in day light as they do at night, where the cameras can't capture the full scale of the destruction. We decided to go back to the lower level apartments, we were tired, we huddled and slept close to the door when deep down we knew that just like there is no where safe in Gaza, no place in our house is safer than any other. Every house was hit, every building, every mosque, they have no targets, they do not know what they are doing. This isn't a fictional story, this is how we spent last night. And if the zionist think that this will scare us into submission, they need to think again, we only submit to Allah, we will never give up, we live and die with dignity and honour." so u "Zionist "supporter no brains racist blame Hamas now wat these fellow Palestinians must go to I'm sending Mr malema to bomb ur land & kill ur women & kidz coz I'm looking for land for da oppressed.Enjoy ur day in da sun.
Raymond Randall 2014/07/31 07:39:30 AM
Why havent these cowardly hamas not used these tunnels for the woman and children to hide in ?? Easy answer because then they would be xposed to the fighting
Leon E Young 2014/07/31 07:43:17 AM
They are genetically so close,they should be 1,yet they fight like cat and dog.This is what nationalism does,this is what religion does and in the end they all humans,decending from the very same ancestor.Oh,how pathetic you are Israel,how pathetic you are Palestine,the cursed sons of Abraham!
Lenesh Panday 2014/07/31 07:47:09 AM
Lol bru can't believe you a stormers supporter and spewing forth such bigotry just cause your Muslim. Any nation being attacked has the right to defend itself same goes for any individual.
Avi Finkelstein494 2014/07/31 07:52:18 AM
Mohammed. What was the date of this, because you posted this exact story on a article from yesterday.
Makati 2014/07/31 08:01:41 AM
This won't stop until these fools stop reading their ancient stupid books...scary coz African got allowed to read recently and these were initials books they got their hands on explaining the situations in Somalia and some African state.i'd say ban these stupid books, they promote bullshi*