GAZA/JERUSALEM: Israel pressed ahead with its Gaza offensive saying it was days from achieving its core goal of destroying all guerrilla cross-border attack tunnels, but a soaring Palestinian civilian toll has triggered international alarm.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet on Wednesday approved continuing the assault launched on July 8 in response to a surge of rocket attacks by Gaza’s dominant Hamas. But Israel also sent a delegation to Egypt, which has been trying, with Washington’s blessing, to broker a ceasefire.
Gaza officials say at least 1,361 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have now been killed in the battered enclave. Israel has lost 56 soldiers to Gaza clashes and three civilians to Palestinian shelling.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was incensed on Wednesday at the deaths of at least 15 Palestinians among thousands sheltering at a school whose UN administrator said appeared to have been hit by Israeli artillery. “It is outrageous. It is unjustifiable. And it demands accountability and justice,” Ban said. Israel said its forces were attacked by guerrillas near the school, in northern Jabalya, and had fired back. It did not immediately comment on another incident, in nearby Shejaia, in which Palestinian officials said 17 people were killed by Israeli shelling near a produce market.
“Such a massacre requires an earthquake-like response,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.
Rolling Israeli ground assaults on residential areas, prefaced by mass-warnings to evacuate, have displaced more than 200,000 of Gaza’s 1.8 million Palestinians. The tiny territory’s infrastructure is in ruin, with power and water outages.
Israel says it is trying to avoid civilian casualties and blames these on Hamas and other Palestinian factions dug-in for urban combat. Both sides have voiced openness to a truce, but their terms diverge dramatically. Israel wants Gaza stripped of infiltration tunnels and rocket stocks. Hamas rules that out, and seeks an end to a crippling Gaza blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt, which view the Palestinians as a security threat. The negotiations are further complicated by the fact Israel and the United States shun Hamas as a terrorist group, while the go-betweens – Egypt, Qatar and Turkey – disagree on Gaza policy.
In the absence of a deal, Israel has ordered its ground forces to focus on locating and destroying a warren of tunnels with which Hamas has menaced its southern towns and army bases.
Major-General Sami Turgeman, chief of Israeli forces in Gaza, said on Wednesday they were “but a few days away from destroying all the attack tunnels”. The army said 32 of the secret passages had been found so far and half of them blown up. Three Israeli soldiers were killed on Wednesday by a booby trap detonated as they uncovered a tunnel shaft, the army said. Netanyahu faces intense pressure from abroad to stand down, however. The United States and the UN Security Council have urged an immediate, unconditional ceasefire by both sides in Gaza to allow in humanitarian relief and for further talks on a more durable cessation of hostilities.
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