Toll passes 330 in Gaza assault

Toll passes 330 in Gaza assault

Israeli troops have uncovered more than a dozen cross-border tunnels and battled Gaza militants on the second day of a ground operation, as the Palestinian death toll climbed past 330 and diplomats scrambled to revive ceasefire efforts.

The Israeli military said it had severely diminished the arsenal of Hamas, the Islamic militant group ruling Gaza, but the militants have continued to fire rockets.

In the northern Gaza Strip, Palestinian officials reported intensified Israeli air strikes, shelling and numerous civilian casualties.

Health ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra said the new round of strikes raised the death toll from the 12-day offensive to more than 330 Palestinians, many of them civilians and nearly a quarter under the age of 18.

In Israel, a rocket from Gaza killed a man near the southern city of Dimona and wounded four people, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said, marking the second Israeli civilian casualty from the fighting. Three Israeli soldiers have been was killed since the start of the ground operation, one apparently from friendly fire.

The Israeli military said during its first 24 hours on the ground in Gaza troops had discovered 13 tunnels into Israel – some as deep as 30 yards – that could be used to carry out attacks. Israel says it launched the offensive to deal with that threat.

Today, the military said it thwarted a second infiltration attempt through one tunnel, killing one militant and forcing the others to return to Gaza. Two soldiers were killed in the fight, the army said.

The military also said it has hit 2,350 targets in Gaza, including 1,100 rocket launchers, during the 12 days of fighting. Militants have fired more than 1,600 rockets since July 8.

Israel says it has encountered little resistance on the ground so far, and has killed about 20 militants in sporadic gun battles. Three soldiers were wounded in overnight fighting, one seriously, the military said.

In one case, it said troops encountered a man who appealed for medical assistance before pulling out grenades and trying to hurl them at soldiers. He was shot dead, authorities said. Troops also encountered a donkey with explosives strapped to it.

Israel launched the ground operation late on Thursday after its air campaign on the Hamas-ruled territory failed to halt the unrelenting rocket fire. The rate of Palestinian casualties has risen since the ground offensive began – Mr al-Kidra said more than 90 Palestinians have since been killed.

Casualties could quickly mount further if the military moves further into urban areas.

About 50,000 Palestinians are already staying in United Nations shelters, according to UNRWA, the UN refugee agency for Palestinians.

Early today, Israeli tank fire killed at least five members of the Al Zawaydi family at their home in Beit Lahiya, including two children. In a separate incident, tank shell fire killed three members of the Hamooda family in their home, among them two children.

In Gaza City, two boys and a one-year-old infant neighbour were killed last night following the break of the Ramadan fast.

An Egyptian truce proposal was rejected by Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007 and has demanded the lifting of an Israeli and Egyptian blockade as part of any ceasefire agreement.

Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shukri today repeated a call for the two sides to adopt its ceasefire initiative, saying it is the only offer on the table, despite efforts from Hamas backers Turkey and Qatar to broker a deal.

In a fresh effort to broker a truce, UN chief Ban Ki-moon is heading for the Middle East to help mediate. A ceasefire is “indispensable” for urgently needed humanitarian efforts to succeed, the undersecretary-general for political affairs Jeffrey Feltman told an emergency meeting of the Security Council yesterday.

Israeli officials have said the offensive could last up to two weeks. The military reported making steady progress but said dozens of tunnels remain and would not give a time frame for its operation.

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