Israel ignored mounting international calls for a ceasefire, vowing not to stop its crippling 10-day assault until “peace and tranquillity” was achieved in towns in the line of Palestinian rocket fire.
Israeli forces seized control of high-rise buildings and attacked smuggling tunnels and several mosques in a campaign against Hamas militants that took an increasing toll on civilians.
Three young brothers were reported to have been killed during shelling and Palestinian wounded filled hospital corridors.
Three Israeli soldiers were killed last night when an errant tank shell hit their position outside Gaza City, the Israeli military said, and 24 were wounded, one critically and three seriously.
The incident brought the death toll among Israeli soldiers since the invasion began on Saturday to four.
The military said a senior officer, Col Avi Peled, who commands the Golani infantry brigade, was among the lightly wounded.
Five civilians were killed when a shell fired by an Israeli ship hit their house on the Gaza shore, hospital officials said. Palestinians said Israeli attacks intensified before dawn today.
Arab delegates met the United Nations Security Council in New York yesterday, urging members to adopt a resolution calling for an immediate end to the Israeli attacks and a permanent ceasefire. At the same time, diplomats and European leaders travelled the region in an effort to stop Israel’s expanding ground and air offensive.
Military spokesman Brig Gen Avi Benayahu told Israeli TV the assault was going according to plan with forces sweeping through Palestinian rocket launching locations near the border and the militants suffering many casualties.
But no militant casualties were seen yesterday by a reporter at Shifa Hospital, the Gaza Strip’s largest. Instead, the hospital was overwhelmed with civilians. Bodies were two to a mortuary drawer, and the wounded were being treated in hallways because beds were full.
Gaza health chiefs reported that since the campaign began on December 27 more than 550 Palestinians had been killed and 2,500 wounded, including 200 civilians.
UN humanitarian chief John Holmes told reporters in New York yesterday that it believed at least 500 people had been killed in the fighting and that as many as 25% were civilians.
At least 20 Palestinian children were killed during the day, said Dr Moaiya Hassanain, a health official. Most confirmed deaths had been civilians.
The three young brothers died in an attack on a town outside Gaza City, a Gaza health official said.
They were carried to a cemetery in an emotional funeral. One of them, Issa Samouni, three, was wrapped in a white cloth, showing only his pale, yellow face. A man delicately placed him in a dark grave cut into the earth.
In Shajaiyeh, troops seized control of three six-storey buildings on the outskirts, climbing to rooftop gun and observation positions, Israeli defence officials said. Residents were locked in their rooms and soldiers took away their mobile phones, a neighbour said.
“The army is there, firing in all directions,” said Mohammed Salmai, a 29-year-old truck driver. “All we can do is take clothes to each other to keep ourselves warm and pray to God that if we die, someone will find our bodies under the rubble.”
Fighter jets attacked houses, weapons storage sites, a pair of mosques and smuggling tunnels, as they have since the start of the offensive.
In another strategic move, Israeli forces seized a main highway in Gaza, slicing the territory in two.
Israeli defence officials said one soldier was killed when troops fought off an attempt by Hamas fighters to capture Israeli soldiers hours after the ground operation began.
Israeli forces detained 80 Palestinians – some of them suspected Hamas members - and transferred several to Israel for questioning, said military officials.
The US State Department said America was pressing for a ceasefire that would include a halt to rocket attacks and an arrangement for reopening crossing points on the border with Israel. A third element would address the tunnels into Gaza from Egypt through which Hamas has smuggled materials and arms.
But President George Bush emphasised “Israel’s desire to protect itself”.
“The situation now taking place in Gaza was caused by Hamas,” he said.
The deputy head of Hamas’ politburo in Syria, Moussa Abu Marzouk, rejected the US proposal, saying the US plan sought to impose “a de facto situation” and encouraged Israel to continue its attacks on Gaza.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who unsuccessfully proposed a two-day truce last week, met Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who lost control of Gaza to Hamas in June 2007.
Europe “wants a ceasefire as quickly as possible”, Mr Sarkozy said afterwards, urging Israel to halt the offensive, while blaming Hamas for acting “irresponsibly and unpardonably”.
A European Union delegation met Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni. “The EU insists on a ceasefire at the earliest possible moment,” said Karel Schwarzenberg, the foreign minister of the Czech Republic, which took over the EU’s presidency last week from France.
UN humanitarian chief John Holmes called the Gaza strife an “increasingly alarming” crisis. He said Gaza was running low on clean water, power, food, medicine and other supplies since Israel began its offensive.