At least 97 Palestinians – nearly half of them women and children – were killed as Israeli troops shelled a Gaza neighbourhood on Sunday, the bloodiest day in a near two-week-old offensive. With the fresh fatalities, the overall death toll has reached 435.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Tel Aviv of carrying out a ‘massacre’ in Shejaia in the eastern suburbs of Gaza city and declared three days of mourning.
Israel’s army claimed it was targeting Hamas militants whom it alleged had fired rockets from Shejaia and built tunnels and command centres there. The army further claimed that it had warned locals two days earlier to leave.
Thirteen Israeli troops were also killed in what was the Israeli military’s highest one-day death toll since a 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. The fresh fatalities raised the overall Israeli death toll to 20, which includes two civilians killed by rocket fire.
Army sources said seven of the 13 soldiers were in an armoured personnel carrier hit by anti-tank fire. Others were killed setting up positions inside houses they had taken over, the sources added.
Residents fled Sunday’s fighting along streets strewn with bodies and rubble, many of them taking shelter in Gaza’s Shifa hospital. Cries of “Did you see Ahmed?” “Did you see my wife?” echoed through the courtyard. Inside, dead and wounded lay on blood-stained floors.
The vast majority of Sunday’s dead were in Shejaiya between Gaza City and the Israeli border, with at least 62 people killed there in a blistering bombardment which began overnight, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said. At least 250 were wounded. Shifa hospital’s director, Naser Tattar, said 17 children, 14 women and four elderly were among the 62 dead.
Gaza’s Health Ministry officials said at least 435 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have been killed and about 2,600 wounded since Israeli air and naval bombardments began on July 8, followed by a ground push on Thursday. Of the 435 fatalities, more than a third were women and children, Qudra said, indicating that 112 of the victims were minors, 41 were women and 25 were elderly.
In all, 18 Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians have been killed since the offensive was launched in response, Israel says, to mounting cross-border rocket attacks by militants. Palestinian fighters kept up their rocket fire on Israel on Sunday.
Sirens sounded in southern Israeli towns and in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. There were no reports of casualties from those salvoes.
Thousands streamed out of Shejaia, some by foot and others piling into the backs of trucks and sitting on the hoods of cars filled with families trying to get away. Several people rode out of the neighbourhood in the shovel of a bulldozer. Video given to Reuters by a local showed at least a dozen corpses, including three children, lying in streets, though the footage could not be verified independently.
As the tank shells began to land, Shejaia residents called radio stations pleading for evacuation. An air strike on the Shejaia home of Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas official, killed his son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, hospital officials said.
Hamas’s armed wing, the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, said it used landmines and roadside bombs against advancing Israeli tanks and armoured personnel carriers.
Egypt, Qatar, France and the United Nations, among others, have all been pushing, with little sign of progress, for a permanent ceasefire in the worst surge of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in two years.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said he might travel to the Middle East soon to try to aid truce efforts. He said he supported Israel’s efforts to destroy tunnels it says Gaza militants use for infiltration attempts and to hide weaponry.
Qatar was due to host a meeting between Abbas and the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sunday, a senior Qatari source told Reuters. Ban was due to travel to Kuwait, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan during the week, a UN statement said. The Qatari source said Abbas would also meet Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 21st, 2014.