Deadliest day so far for both sides in Gaza

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The mayhem began in the early hours of Sunday morning in Shejaiya, an eastern neighborhood of Gaza City, where Israeli forces battled with Hamas militants. Terrified civilians fled, sometimes past the bodies of those struck down in earlier artillery barrages. By dusk it was clear that Sunday was the deadliest single day for the Palestinians in the latest conflict and the deadliest for the Israeli military in years.

At least 60 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers and officers were killed in Shejaiya alone, and the shattered neighborhood was quickly becoming a new symbol of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, underlining the rising cost of this latest Gaza war.

The death tolls and the withering assault on Shejaiya appeared to shake the international community, with world leaders continuing to carefully call for both sides to step back but with criticism of Israel rising. Within hours, President Barack Obama had called the Israeli prime minister for the second time in three days, the U.N. Security Council had called an emergency session at the urging of the Palestinians, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had issued a statement calling the attack on Shejaiya “an atrocious action.”

By early evening, the Obama administration announced that Secretary of State John Kerry would head to Cairo to meet with Egyptian officials in an attempt to negotiate a cease-fire to end the bloodshed.

Throughout Gaza, at least 87 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire Sunday, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, bringing the death toll there since the Israeli air offensive began July 8 to at least 425, with more than 3,000 injured. The toll includes more than 100 children.

Israel has lost 18 soldiers so far, as well as two citizens killed by rocket and mortar fire.

Two American-raised men were among the 13 Israeli soldiers killed in the conflict in Gaza on Sunday, according to a U.S. Jewish organization and media reports.

Max Steinberg, a native of California's San Fernando Valley, was a sniper in the Golani Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces, according to a letter sent by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to its email list.

Nissim Sean Carmeli of South Padre Island in Texas, was also fighting in the Golani Brigade, the Houston Chronicle reported.

The U.S. Department of State did not immediately respond to requests for confirmation of the reported deaths Sunday evening. A spokeswoman for the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles said officials were still notifying family members of those slain in Sunday's fighting and could not yet release any names.

In Shejaiya, the panic Sunday was palpable. Some of the men, women and children who streamed out of the area were barefoot. Israeli shells crashed all around, rockets fired by Palestinian militants soared overhead in the direction of Israel and small-arms fire whizzed past. Asked where they were going, one woman said, “God knows.”

The casualties quickly overwhelmed local hospitals. Doctors treated some victims on the floor.

As the day wore on and the casualties mounted, it became apparent that what had begun Thursday night as a limited ground invasion to follow 10 days of intense airstrikes had developed into a more extensive and dangerous phase for both sides.

Late Sunday, Hamas’ military wing announced it had captured an Israeli soldier, though it was not clear if any soldier was missing or if the announcement was an exercise in psychological warfare. The Israeli military said it was looking into the report.

Despite the growing international alarm, Israel’s political and military leaders said that while acknowledging the pain for both sides, they were determined to continue with their mission. They have said the offensive is meant to root out Hamas’ vast network of underground tunnels, many of them leading into Israel, and to quell the rocket fire from Gaza, which continued Sunday.

In a televised prime-time address to the nation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “We are not deterred,” adding, “We will continue to operate as long as necessary.”

Mr. Netanyahu said he had “laid the diplomatic foundation that has given us international credit to operate,” listing major Western countries that he said understood Israel’s right to defend itself.

In another sign that the conflict could continue to take a high toll, a senior Israeli military official noted that the Hamas fighters that Israel faced in Shejaiya had “learned lessons” from past conflicts and were tough adversaries.

“I have to admit that we were facing good fighters on the other side,” he said.

So far, Mr. Netanyahu appears to have the support of many Israelis, who were particularly shaken in recent days when militants used the “terror tunnels” that the government had warned about to infiltrate their country.

In one of several television appearances Sunday, Mr. Kerry noted that Hamas fighters who have crossed the border recently into Israel were carrying tranquilizer drugs and handcuffs.

It is unclear how much support Israel will continue to receive internationally if the bombardment continues. On Friday, Mr. Obama reaffirmed his “strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself,” but suggested that it was based on his understanding that “the current military ground operations are designed to deal with the tunnels.”

Mr. Ban called on Israel to halt its operation in Gaza immediately, saying, “Israel must exercise maximum restraint and do far more to protect civilians.” He also called for an end to the rocket fire from Gaza.

Mr. Ban spoke in Doha, Qatar, hours before a scheduled meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Abbas called the Israeli action in Shejaiya “a crime against humanity,” according to Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency.

israel - United States military - United States government - Middle East - Barack Obama - John Kerry - Mahmoud Abbas - Palestinian territories - Ban Ki-Moon - Israeli armed forces - Israel government - Palestinian territories government - Gaza Strip - Benjamin Netanyahu - Hamas - Gaza

Reuters contributed.


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