Palestinian leadership slams Israel 'massacre' in Shejaiya

Death toll crosses 400; humanitarian truce in a neighbourhood in Gaza Strip collapsed only an hour after it started.

Afp July 20, 2014

GAZA CITY: The Palestinian leadership on Sunday condemned a blistering Israeli attack on Gaza's Shejaiya neighbourhood as a "massacre" after more than 60 people were killed.

In a statement, the newly-inaugurated Palestinian government described the attack as a "war crime" which required immediate international intervention.

"The Palestinian consensus government condemned in the strongest terms the heinous massacre committed by the Israeli occupation forces against innocent Palestinian civilians in the neighbourhood of Shejaiya," it said.

The office of president Mahmud Abbas also issued a similar statement condemning the attack as a "massacre."

Humanitarian truce collapses

The humanitarian truce in a neighbourhood in the Gaza Strip collapsed only an hour after it started, as Israel "responded to Hamas fire", the army said on Sunday.

According to the health ministry, the death toll from the 13-day assault has gone past 400.

According to an Israeli military spokesperson, Israel had earlier agreed to a two-hour humanitarian truce, which Hamas had also agreed to abide by.

The ceasefire, requested by the International Committee of the Red Cross, was scheduled to last from 1:30pm to 3:30pm (local time) in the Shejaia district, where health officials said at least 50 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire. However, the truce collapsed short after it was scheduled to start.

"The ICRC contacted (us) and offered to broker a three-hour humanitarian truce to enable ambulances to evacuate the dead and wounded and Hamas accepted it," spokesperon Sami Abu Zuhri had said in a statement.

"Hamas agreed on it but the occupation refused it," he had claimed, although Israeli public radio reported that the Israeli government was studying the proposal.

Contacted by AFP, an ICRC spokesperson said: "We have been making every effort to ensure ways to evacuate the dead and the wounded."

Thousands were fleeing northern Gaza on Sunday after a night of fierce bombardment as Israel expanded a ground assault on day 13.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon was to arrive in the region to add his weight to truce efforts.

On the ground, the streets of the northern district of Shejaiya were filled with thousands of civilians fleeing for their lives after heavy shelling left casualties lying in the streets, an AFP correspondent reported.

Ambulances were unable to reach much of the area along the border because of heavy fire, and emergency services told AFP there were reports of dead and wounded trapped by the bombardment.

At Shifa hospital, casualties were being brought in by the minute, some in ambulances, but others in cars and trucks.

Emergency services spokesperson Ashraf al Qudra said at least 20 bodies had been retrieved from the eastern Shejaiya district, but ongoing fire was preventing the evacuation of many more.

Sabah Mamluk, 40, arrived at the hospital with her mother and her two daughters, both of them barefoot.

"The shelling was non-stop, it was everywhere," she told AFP.

"We ran into the streets and started to walk. It was terrifying. We got split up and found an ambulance that could bring us, but my husband is still there with the rest of the children and I can't reach him by telephone."

Early on Sunday, the army confirmed two more soldiers had been killed overnight, raising to seven the overall Israeli toll.

Four soldiers were killed on Saturday, among them two who died in a raid inside Israel. Another was killed by an anti-tank missile while the fourth died in a firefight with a militant, the army said.

Israel said its ground operation to destroy the network of tunnels used by militants to stage deadly cross-border attacks was to "expand" later Sunday.

"This evening, the ground phase of Operation Protective Edge expands, as additional forces join the effort to combat terror in the Gaza Strip and establish a reality in which Israeli residents can live in safety and security," the army said.

Army spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said that since the ground operation began late on Thursday, 70 militants had been killed, and 190 rockets had hit Israel.

Before dawn, an intensive artillery barrage struck areas east of Gaza City, killing at least two children, medics said.

The increasing number of children killed in the conflict is causing a growing outcry, with a joint statement from NGOs War Child and Defence for Children International saying more children had been killed than militants.

Figures provided by the UN children's agency on Sunday showed that at least 73 of the victims were under the age of 18.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hamas was entirely responsible for any civilian casualties, accusing the group of "using innocent civilians as human shields."

Earlier this week, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees expressed outrage after finding 20 rockets stored in one of its empty schools in Gaza.

UNRWA has opened 49 of its schools to shelter those fleeing the most heavily bombarded areas. So far, more than 60,000 Gazans have sought sanctuary at UN institutions, the agency said.

Meanwhile, Hamas confirmed Meshaal had received an invitation for talks in Cairo on an Egyptian peace initiative.

Although the mlitant movement had made its position clear, it was "ready to cooperate with a move by any party that will achieve the specific Palestinian demands," a statement said.

The Egyptian foreign ministry was not able to confirm or deny the new invitation.

Earlier this week, an Egyptian truce proposal was accepted by Israel, but snubbed by Hamas which said it had not been consulted.

Hamas's relations with Cairo have soured significantly since the military ousted its ally, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

But it is close to both Turkey and Qatar, where Meshaal is based.

Abbas and Meshaal were to meet in Doha later Sunday to discuss the Egyptian-proposed truce, an official close to Abbas said.

Hamas is demanding a complete end to the Israeli blockade on Gaza, that the Rafah crossing with Egypt be opened, and that Israel free scores of veteran prisoners who were re-arrested in recent weeks.

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