GAZA CITY – At least 40 Palestinians were killed as Israeli forces pounded northern Gaza on Sunday, sending thousands fleeing in terror on day 13 of the deadliest assault on the enclave in five years.
The intensity of the bombardment prevented emergency services from accessing the area and dead bodies lay in the streets as thousands fled in terror, an AFP correspondent reported. The Palestinian death spiralled towards 400, with medics warning it could rise further from the ongoing bombardment of areas north and east of Gaza City.
As the scale of the casualties emerged, a Hamas official said the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had called for a three-hour humanitarian ceasefire to enable ambulance crews to get in. The Red Cross refused to confirm or deny it had made such a proposal, although media reports said the Israeli government was also studying a proposal by the international humanitarian agency.
Until now, the Hamas movement had refused to yield in the face of the relentless air, sea and land attacks. It has pressed on with its own assaults which killed another two Israeli soldiers overnight, the Israeli army said. As the warring sides showed no sign of giving up, diplomatic efforts to end the violence were to intensify with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to meet Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas in Qatar to discuss an Egyptian truce proposal.
On the ground, the streets of the northern district of Shejaiya were filled with thousands of civilians fleeing for their lives after heavy shelling left casualties lying in the streets, an AFP correspondent reported. Footage from the area showed vast clouds of black smoke billowing into the sky as the shelling continued and Gaza's eastern flank burned.
Ambulances were unable to reach much of the area along the border because of heavy fire, and emergency services told AFP there were reports of dead and wounded trapped by the bombardment. Emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said at least 40 bodies had been retrieved from the eastern Shejaiya district, with another 380 people wounded.
Among the dead were women and children, as well as a Palestinian paramedic and a cameraman who were killed when the ambulance they were in was hit, with the ongoing fire hampering efforts to recover the bodies. "He wasn't a fighter, he was a fighter for humanity," wailed one relative as the family buried him. He was an ambulance worker, did he deserve to die?"
At Gaza City's Shifa hospital, Dr Said Hassan told AFP that ambulances were unable to reach everyone, with many of the wounded walking hours to get treatment. "This is the worst I've ever seen it," said the doctor, who has worked at the hospital for eight years. All around him, casualties were being brought in by the minute, some in ambulances, others in cars and trucks. Among them were children screaming in agony, many peppered with shrapnel wounds.
Fights broke out in the emergency room as hysterical parents banged on the walls in fear and sorrow. "The shelling was non-stop, it was everywhere," Sabah Mamluk, 40, told AFP. "We ran into the streets and started to walk. It was terrifying," she said. "We got split up and found an ambulance that could bring us, but my husband is still there with the rest of the children and I can't reach him by telephone."