GAZA CITY: Thirty-three Gazans were killed on Friday as Israel pressed a major ground offensive in the coastal enclave, raising the overall Palestinian death toll since July 8 to 284, medics said.
An Israeli soldier was also killed as troops began an offensive on the Gaza periphery aimed at destroying Hamas’s network of cross-border tunnels, the army said.
The latest deaths included three people killed in Khan Yunis in the south, one man killed in Nusseirat in central Gaza and another death in a cemetery in the northern Gaza Strip, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said. Elsewhere, medics found the bodies of another four people: two of them just to the east of the southern city of Rafah, and another two in Khan Yunis, one of them a 17-year-old, he said.
Earlier in the day, another eight people were killed in and around the northern town of Beit Hanun, among them three teenagers. And in the southern city of Khan Yunis, six people from two families were killed, as well as another three who were killed by tank fire.
Attacks in the southern city of Rafah, which straddles the border with Egypt, claimed five lives in several different attacks, among them a five-month-old baby. To the east of Gaza City, another person was killed in Shejaiya, and medics also found the body of a man killed in a strike south of the city.
Figures provided by the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights show civilians account for more than 80 percent of the victims of Israel’s assault since July 8 to halt rocket fire by militants of the Islamist movement Hamas which controls the coastal strip.
At least 1,920 Palestinians have also been wounded.
Since the Israeli operation began, more than 1,207 rockets fired from Gaza have struck Israel, and another 333 have been shot down by the country’s Iron Dome air defence system, army figures show.
Diplomats stepped up efforts to halt 11 days of bloodshed in and around the battered Gaza Strip while Pope Francis demanded an immediate ceasefire in a phone call with Israeli President Shimon Peres and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmud Abbas.
And Abbas reached out for French help to lobby Hamas allies Qatar and Turkey to pressure the Islamists into accepting a truce during talks in Cairo with Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. In the face of Israel’s land, sea and air offensive that has sent terrified civilians running for cover, the Islamist movement Hamas remained defiant and warned the Jewish state it would “drown in the swamp of Gaza”.
As Gaza residents spoke of a night of terror, with gunbattles in the south and all-night shelling in the north, Netanyahu said he had ordered the military to ready for “the possibility of a significant broadening of the ground activity.”
Immediately afterwards, he convened his security cabinet to discuss plans for a possible expansion of the campaign, which began on July 8 with the aim of stamping out cross-border rocket fire.
The ground operation, which began in the Gaza periphery at around 2000 GMT on Thursday, sent thousands of people fleeing west to escape the fighting, with a UN agency saying the numbers of displaced had almost doubled overnight.
“The number of people coming to UNRWA seeking sanctuary from the fighting in Gaza has nearly doubled today. It has risen from 22,000 to over 40,000,” said Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, saying they were staying in 34 of the agency’s schools.
By mid-morning, the road between Gaza City and Khan Yunis was deserted with only a single minibus, packed with passengers, careering south, its windows covered with makeshift white flags, an AFP correspondent said.
During Friday prayers, imams at Gaza’s 1,400 mosques relayed a single message to the faithful: “Be patient and strong, victory will come.”
But it was little comfort for those on the ground with hospitals overwhelmed by a flood of patients.
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