Israeli soldiers carry the coffin of a soldier, who was killed by Hamas militants who had infiltrated Israel through a tunnel from Gaza, on Sunday. (AFP)
Gaza City, July 20: After weeks of escalating conflict in Gaza, both sides reported death tolls that made clear that today was the deadliest day so far in the war. The Palestinian health ministry reported that 87 Palestinians had died, and the Israeli military said 13 soldiers were dead.
The fighting signalled that what had begun as a limited ground invasion by Israel that started on Thursday night had moved into a more extensive and costlier phase for both sides.
Most of the Palestinians were killed in an eastern neighbourhood of Gaza City called Shejaiya. For the Palestinians it was the deadliest episode since Israel began its offensive on July 8 with airstrikes it says were aimed at curbing rocket fire against its cities. Since July 9, 417 people have been killed in Gaza, among them more than 100 children.
Beginning at dawn today in Shejaiya, men, women and children streamed out of the neighbourhood, some barefoot, past bodies of people killed by shelling. Israeli shells crashed all around, rockets fired by militants soared overhead, and occasional small-arms fire whizzed past. Black smoke rose above the city. Asked where they were going, one woman said, “God knows.”
The Gaza health ministry reported that more than 300 people were injured in that neighbourhood alone today.
Palestinian government, which is led by President Mahmoud Abbas of the western-supported Palestinian Authority and by Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, in a statement described the killing of Palestinians in Shejaiya as “a heinous massacre” and a war crime.
As the Israeli offensive spread through Gaza, generating gruesome photos of dead and fleeing Palestinians, even US secretary of state John F. Kerry appeared to express frustration.
Although Kerry, on several talk shows today, vociferously defended Israel’s right to take action, he also made critical comments privately that were captured by Fox News on a live microphone. Chris Wallace, the Fox interviewer, confronted Kerry with a tape of those remarks during his appearance on that channel. In it, Kerry is heard saying: “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” adding, “We got to get over there.”
The comments were without context, but Wallace’s questioning and Kerry’s reply seemed to make clear that the secretary had been speaking ironically to express frustration at the deaths of Palestinian civilians in an operation aimed at militants.
Asked if he was “upset that the Israelis are going too far,” Kerry replied: “It’s very difficult in these situations. I reacted, obviously, in a way that anybody does in respect to young children and civilians.”
The death toll for the Israeli soldiers surpassed the numbers of soldiers killed in the past two Gaza offensives.
It was not immediately clear whether the growing death toll and increasing pressure on both sides would help or hinder international efforts to forge a ceasefire.