GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The fierce battle 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 became the latest symbol of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, underlining the rising cost of this newest 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 Obama had called the Israeli prime minister for the second time in three days, the UN 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 revealed that Secretary of State John F. Kerry would head to Cairo to meet with Egyptian officials in an attempt to negotiate a cease-fire.
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 432, 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 Americans — a Californian and a Texan — were among the soldiers for the Israel Defense Forces killed in Gaza, the Associated Press said.
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 toward Israel, and small-arms fire echoed. 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 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 dangerous phase for both sides.
Late Sunday, the military wing of Hamas said it had captured an Israeli soldier, though the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, said, “Those rumors are untrue.”
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 the vast network of underground tunnels used by Hamas, 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.”
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 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, 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.
It is unclear how much support Israel will continue to receive abroad if the bombardment continues. Last week, 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.”
On Sunday, he again backed Israel’s right to self-defense but also raised “serious concern about the growing number of casualties,” according to a statement released by the White House.
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.
Ban spoke in Doha, Qatar, hours before a scheduled meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas called the Israeli action in Shejaiya “a crime against humanity,” according to Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency.
Like other Israeli officials, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, noted that ground forces moved into Shejaiya after residents had been warned to leave for days. But some residents have said they are unsure where they could go to be safe in the small, densely populated enclave.
The two Americans killed were soldiers for the Israel Defense Force.
Stuart Steinberg confirmed the death of his son, Max, 24, to the Associated Press. Max Steinberg, whose family lives in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, was a sharpshooter for the Golani Brigade.
The Israeli defense force said in a statement that Sergeant Nissim Sean Carmeli, 21, was killed in combat in the Gaza Strip. Carmeli was from South Padre Island, Texas.