Thousands flee major battle in Gaza

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Escalating their ground
offensive, Israeli troops backed by tanks and warplanes battled Hamas
militants in a crowded neighborhood of Gaza City on Sunday. The
fighting, including heavy Israeli tank fire, killed scores of
Palestinians, forced thousands to flee their homes and left dozens of
homes destroyed.
Palestinian health officials reported at least 50
dead in air and artillery strikes that echoed across the city for hours
and sent panicked residents fleeing, many carrying small children and
waving white flags. Gaza officials said 35,000 people fled their homes
Sunday.
The nearly two-week conflict has killed more than 400
Palestinians and seven Israelis, and appeared to be escalating as U.N.
chief Ban Ki-moon headed to the region to try to revive cease-fire
efforts.
After daybreak, dozens of wounded from Shijaiyah were
rushed to Gaza City’s central Shifa Hospital. Frantic parents carried
children bloodied by shrapnel, and the emergency room quickly
overflowed, forcing doctors to treat some patients on mattresses in a
hallway.
"The gate of hell has opened, and shrapnel came through
the windows," said Shijaiyah resident Jawad Hassanain, speaking by
phone. He said he and his family sought shelter in a nearby building
after their house shook from the explosions.
"From 12:30 a.m.
until 4 a.m., all you could hear is heavy bombardment, the smell of fire
and the smell of death. By 4:30, and after the call for the prayer, we
were able to get in an ambulance," which took them to his sister’s
neighborhood, he said.
Following a request by the Red Cross,
Israel and Hamas said they agreed to a brief, local cease-fire to enable
rescue services to attend to the dead and wounded. The truce did not
last for the designated period, and each side blamed the other for
violating it.
Israeli troops pushed into Gaza late Thursday after
more than a week of airstrikes failed to halt unrelenting Palestinian
rocket fire that has increasingly targeted major Israeli cities. Israel
has said the operation is aimed at halting the rockets as well as
destroying tunnels that militants have used to stage cross-border raids.
The
military said it has hit more than 2,500 targets in Gaza, including
1,100 rocket launchers, during the 13 days of fighting. It said that
some 70 militants were killed and another 13 brought to Israel for
questioning.
Gaza militants have fired more than 1,760 rockets at Israeli cities since July 8, the military said.
Throughout
the night, loud explosions shook Gaza as Israeli flares lit up the sky
and fighter jets flew low over the coastal territory.
The Hamas
military wing said its fighters exchanged fire with Israeli forces in
Shijaiyah and a nearby neighborhood. The sound of gunfire could be heard
from the city center.
In a separate confrontation, Islamic Jihad
fighters ambushed Israeli troops near the southern Gaza city of Khan
Younis, the group said, adding that Israeli helicopter gunships had
joined the battle.
The heavy fighting came as Ban headed to Qatar
to try to push stalled cease-fire efforts forward. He was set to meet
Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Gulf state,
according to Abbas’ spokesman. Abbas also plans to meet Hamas’ top
leader Khaled Mashaal.
Hamas last week rejected an Egyptian call
on both sides to halt hostilities, saying it first wants guarantees that
Israel and Egypt will significantly ease their border blockade of Gaza,
which has been ruled by the Islamic militant group since 2007.
Hamas
has sought involvement of other countries, such as Qatar, in any
cease-fire negotiations. The militant group is deeply distrustful of
Egypt’s rulers, who last year deposed a Hamas-friendly government in
Cairo.
Since the start of Israel-Hamas fighting almost two weeks
ago, 410 Palestinians have been killed and 3,000 wounded, according to
Gaza Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra. More than one-fourth of
the deaths have been reported since the start of the ground offensive
late Thursday.
Two Israeli soldiers died in the Gaza fighting late
Saturday and early Sunday morning, bringing the Israeli military death
toll to five in the three days since ground operations began. Two
Israeli civilians have perished from Hamas rocket and mortar attacks on
Israeli territory.
Dozens of Israeli soldiers have been wounded
since the start of the ground operation, according to Israeli hospitals
treating them.
The Israel military meanwhile said it was establishing a field hospital at a crossing with Gaza to treat
wounded Palestinians.
In
Shijaiyah, the heavy shelling began around midnight as tanks reached
the edge of the neighborhood, residents said. In the first hours of
shelling, it was too dangerous for ambulances to approach and residents
said they saw dead and wounded in the streets. Casualties were later
evacuated.
Hundreds of residents began fleeing the neighborhood
after daybreak, including a woman in a wheelchair who waved a white
flag. Columns of smoke rose from the neighborhood as the sound of
shelling echoed from inside.
A man walking in the street said his
son was trapped in the family house and that he needed someone to help
rescue him. He then got into an ambulance to reach his house, but tank
fire hit nearby and the ambulance quickly turned around to get away.
The bodies of a man and a woman could be seen in the rubble of a house that had been completely
destroyed.
Among
those killed in Shijaiyah on Sunday was Osama al-Haya, a son of senior
Hamas leader Khalil al-Haya. Osama al-Haya’s wife and two children, ages
four and six, were also killed, Palestinian health officials said.
Some
residents tried to find refuge with relatives, while others went to
U.N. schools that have been serving as temporary shelters since the
start of the fighting.
Some 63,000 Palestinians are already
staying in United Nations shelters, according to UNRWA, the U.N. refugee
agency for Palestinians. The number of people who have fled their homes
has more than tripled since the start of Israel’s ground operation and
the agency said it planned to open more schools.
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Enav reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak contributed from Gaza City.
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