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Thousands flee as Israeli troops battle militants in Gaza

Palestinians flee Gaza City's Shijaiyah neighborhood, in the Gaza Strip, Sunday, July 20, 2014. Dozens of people were killed in Shijaiyah and many more bodies were believed buried under the rubble of homes, health officials said. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)   | Photo Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis

Escalating their ground offensive, Israeli troops backed by tanks and warplanes battled Hamas militants in a crowded neighbourhood of Gaza City early on Sunday. The fighting, including heavy Israeli tank fire, killed scores of Palestinians, forced thousands to flee and damaged or destroyed dozens of homes.

Palestinian health officials reported at least 65 people killed by the air and artillery strikes that echoed across the city for hours. They put the number of displaced at 35,000.

At least 420 Palestinians and seven Israelis have been killed in the near two-week conflict which escalated as U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon headed to the region to try to revive ceasefire efforts.

Sunday’s battle in Gaza City’s Shijaiyah neighbourhood was the deadliest so far in Israel’s three-day-old ground offensive, which followed 10 days of heavy airstrikes on targets linked to Gaza’s Hamas rulers. Israel has said it sent thousands of troops into Gaza to destroy Hamas rocket launchers and tunnels dug by the Islamic militants to sneak into Israel.





Residents of Shijaiyah said Israel tanks entered the area after midnight and fired heavily.

“The gate of hell has opened, and shrapnel came through the windows,” Shijaiyah resident Jawad Hassanain said by phone. He said he and his family sought shelter in a nearby building after their house shook from the explosions.

“From 12.30 a.m. until 4 a.m., 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 neighbourhood, he said.

After daybreak, dozens of wounded from Shijaiyah were rushed to Gaza’s central Shifa Hospital. Frantic parents carried children bloodied by shrapnel, and the emergency room quickly overflowed, forcing doctors to treat some patients on mattresses in a hallway.

During a brief Red Cross-brokered lull, paramedics entered the neighbourhood to retrieve the dead, pulling bodies from the rubble of homes. Dozens of houses over several blocks were destroyed or badly damaged, a scene reminiscent of Israel’s last major incursion into Gaza more than five years ago when large areas near the border with Israel were devastated.

Palestinian health officials said at least 65 people were killed and 288 wounded in Shijaiyah, bringing the overall Palestinian toll since July 8 to 425 dead and some 3,000 wounded. Close to half of the dead were killed since the start of the ground offensive.

Seven Israelis also were killed, including five soldiers, the military said. Dozens of soldiers have been wounded since the start of the ground operation, according to Israeli hospitals.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, said the military met a “huge” level of resistance from Hamas militants in Shijaiyah, with anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons fired from houses and buildings.

Lt. Col. Lerner said 8 percent of rockets fired over the 13-day conflict came from Shijaiyah and that residents were warned ahead of the offensive to leave the area.

“We are mobilising in order to strike Hamas where it hurts,” he said.

Israel says Hamas’ network of tunnels is a highly-developed web which links rocket building, maintenance and launching sites and stretches well into Israel.

Israel has also targeted homes of Hamas leaders, warning they would pay a high price.

Among those killed in Shijaiyah were a son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren of Khalil al-Haya, a senior leader of the group. They were killed at the time of dawn prayers, Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra said.

Mr. Khalil al-Haya promised to avenge his son.

“We promise you, my people, a brilliant victory,” he told a local Hamas radio station. “The blood of my son and the martyrs will not be wasted and resistance will continue.”

Thousands of residents began fleeing Shijaiyah after daybreak, including a woman in a wheelchair who waved a white flag. Columns of smoke rose from the neighbourhood 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.

Gaza’s Health Ministry later said 35,000 people fled Sunday’s fighting.

Some residents tried to find refuge with relatives or at U.N. schools. Some 63,000 Palestinians are already staying in United Nations shelters, according to UNRWA, the U.N. refugee agency for Palestinians.

The number of people who have fled their homes has more than tripled since the start of Israel’s ground operation and the agency said it planned to open more schools.

In the southern town of Khan Younis, an airstrike targeted the home of a field commander of another militant group, Islamic Jihad. The man survived, but the strike killed his 15-year-old daughter and three others, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.

The heavy fighting came as Mr. Ban headed to Qatar to try to push stalled cease-fire efforts forward.


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