News Middle East

Monday 15 September 2014

Gaza endures bloodiest day as over 100 die in blitz

Abbas declares three days of mourning as slaughter goes on

David Blair and Inna Lazareva

Published 21/07/2014 | 02:30

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Palestinians, who medics said were wounded in Israeli shelling, sit at a hospital in Gaza City yesterday.
A Palestinian man holds the hand of a woman, who medics said was wounded in an Israeli air strike, in the northern Gaza Strip yesterday.
An Israeli soldier gestures from a tank near the border with Gaza
An Israeli soldier gestures from a tank near the border with Gaza

Gaza endured the bloodiest day of the offensive yesterday when 13 Israeli soldiers and more than 100 Palestinians were killed, including scores who fell victim to the heaviest bombardment of the campaign.

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Israeli forces pounded the suburb of Shejaiya with air strikes and heavy artillery, killing at least 62 Palestinians and forcing thousands to flee their homes.

But Israel's ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, designed to protect its cities from rocket attack, has increased the risk to its own forces. A military statement said that "over the course of the day" 13 soldiers from the Golani Brigade of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) were "killed in combat".

That amounts to Israel's heaviest military loss in a single day since the assault on the West Bank town of Jenin in 2002. Until the ground offensive began last Thursday, no Israeli troops had died during Operation Protective Edge. Since then, 18 have been killed. Rockets launched from Gaza have also killed two Israeli civilians. Undaunted by the Israeli bombardment by land, sea and air, Hamas has pressed on with its own assaults.

The Israeli attack on Shejaiya and other incidents brought the Palestinian death toll after day 13 of the operation to more than 435.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, accused Israel of conducting a "massacre" in Shejaiya and declared three days of mourning.

During the fighting in this eastern suburb of Gaza city, the emergency services were unable to recover the wounded.

However, Israel allowed a four-hour ceasefire yesterday, allowing ambulances to enter Shejaiya. Buildings were still ablaze and shocked survivors gathered outside their homes.

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Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, blamed Hamas for civilian casualties, accusing the radical Islamist movement of hiding behind ordinary Palestinians. "All civilian casualties are unintended by us, but intended by Hamas. They want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can," he said.

Mr Netanyahu gave mixed messages on how long the campaign might last, telling CNN that he would press on for "as long as necessary" to end the threat of rocket attacks on Israeli cities, but adding that the operation could be over "fairly quickly". He said there was "very strong" international support for the military's ongoing operation in Gaza".

"We are carrying out a complex, deep, intensive activity inside the Gaza Strip and there is world support for this... very strong support within the international community for the activity that the IDF is doing," he said at a press conference in the defence ministry in Tel Aviv.

Mr Netanyahu has said Israel won "international legitimacy" for its military operation in Gaza after it accepted an Egyptian truce proposal on July 15 which was shunned by Hamas. "As a democratic state, Israel is using the legitimate tools of self-defence to try and harm those who are firing rockets at us. I think this distinction is clear to most world leaders," he said.

US President Barack Obama expressed concern over the loss of life in Gaza in a phone call to Mr Netanyahu. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, was due to travel to Cairo "soon" to seek an end to the fighting.

Tayyip Erdogan Recep, Turkey's prime minister, accused Israel of killing Palestinians "mercilessly" and lashed out at Washington.

"How can we ignore this? How can a country like the US turn a blind eye to this?" he asked.

"As a member of the UN Security Council, it needs to act fairly."

The fighting is having a major impact on families.

The seven children of Kibbutz Alumim, located just two miles from Israel's border with Gaza have invented a new game.

"You kidnap me, you give me back and then I'll kidnap you – that's how it goes", says Esther, a mother of four, originally from London who moved to Israel 30 years ago.

Violence and kidnapping is the last thing one would expect to hear about in this idyllic-looking village, with its lush green grass, wind chimes hanging from trees and vibrant flower pots arranged neatly in decorative wheel carts around the garden.

But by 4pm yesterday afternoon, over 10 rocket alarms had already rung out here, sending the residents into bomb shelters.

And in recent weeks, a new threat of tunnels from the ground is an added threat to many of those who had already had learnt to live with constant on-off rocket fire from the sky.

On at least two separate occasions on Saturday, militants from Gaza entered Israel through tunnels, which emerged in residential communities just a few miles away from this one.

According to the Israeli military, the purpose of the militants was not only to kill but also to kidnap, as was evident by the equipment they carried, which included arms, syringes, tranquillisers, plastic handcuffs and even IDF uniforms.

"We raise our children to be strong, with a strong desire for peace. But the tunnels are frightening. We don't know where these tunnels will come out," says Eitan Lakoum, who had come to pick up his children from the village's children's centre.

"The main thing is that we can't really leave our houses", says Esther, describing her fear of militants from Gaza infiltrating the area near the community that has been declared a closed military zone by the IDF.

"We have a swimming pool, but no one is in it. There are soldiers all around – on the one hand it is reassuring, but on the other, it's freaky". (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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