Israeli troops backed by tanks and warplanes have escalated their ground offensive, battling Hamas militants in a crowded neighbourhood of Gaza City.
The latest fighting, including heavy Israeli tank fire, killed scores of Palestinians, forced thousands to flee their homes and left dozens of homes destroyed.
Palestinian health officials reported at least 50 dead in air and artillery strikes that echoed across the city for hours and sent panicked residents fleeing, many carrying small children and waving white flags. Gaza officials said 35,000 people fled their homes today.
The nearly two-week conflict has killed more than 400 Palestinians and seven Israelis, and appeared to be escalating as UN chief Ban Ki-moon headed to the region to try to revive ceasefire efforts.
After daybreak, dozens of wounded from the Shijaiyah area were rushed to Gaza City’s central Shifa Hospital. Frantic parents carried children bloodied by shrapnel, and the emergency department 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. He said he and his family sought shelter in a nearby building after their house shook from the explosions.
“From 12.30am until 4am, 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.
Following a request by the Red Cross, Israel and Hamas said they agreed to a brief, local ceasefire to enable rescue services to attend to the dead and wounded. The truce did not last for the designated period, and each side blamed the other for violating it.
Israeli troops pushed into Gaza late on Thursday after more than a week of air strikes 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 tunnels that militants have used to stage cross-border raids.
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 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 neighbourhood. The sound of gunfire could be heard from the city centre.
In a separate confrontation, Islamic Jihad fighters ambushed Israeli troops near the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, the group said, adding that Israeli helicopter gunships had joined the battle.