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World

Gaza fighting sees deadliest day

An Israeli soldier loaded tank shells near the border with Gaza.

Tsafrir Abayov/Associated Press

An Israeli soldier loaded tank shells near the border with Gaza.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — After weeks of escalating conflict in Gaza, both sides reported death tolls that made clear Sunday 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 signaled that what had begun as a limited ground invasion by Israel on Thursday night had moved into a more extensive and costlier phase for both sides.

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Most of the Palestinians were killed in an eastern neighborhood of Gaza City called Shejaiya, just outside the downtown of the densely populated city. For the Palestinians it was the deadliest episode since Israel began its offensive July 8 with airstrikes it says were aimed at curbing rocket fire against its cities, then followed with the ground offensive it said would destroy tunnels into Israel. Since July 9, 417 people have been killed in Gaza, among them more than 100 children, and more than 3,000 have been injured.

Sunday’s death toll for the Israeli soldiers surpassed the number of soldiers killed in the past two Gaza offensives. In the 2008-09 war, 10 died, four of them from “friendly fire.”

Late in the day, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, announced it had captured an Israeli soldier, but that was not immediately confirmed by Israel.

President Barack Obama told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday that he had “serious concern” about the growing number of casualties on both sides in Gaza. In his second phone call with the Israeli leader in three days, Obama also told Netanyahu that Secretary of State John Kerry will travel soon to Cairo to press for an immediate cessation of hostilities, a White House statement said.

The statement also emphasized the need to protect civilians in both Gaza and Israel.

In a sign of increasing international alarm, the U.N. Security Council scheduled an emergency session for Sunday night after a request from the Palestinians.

“This situation is intolerable,” President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority said in a televised speech from Doha, Qatar. He called the Israeli attacks “crimes against humanity.”

The Palestinians circulated a draft resolution that “condemns all violence and hostilities directed against civilians and all acts of terrorism.” But there was no indication that the council would act on the draft resolution Sunday or that it would take any action.

Beginning at dawn Sunday in Shejaiya, men, women and children streamed out of the neighborhood, 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 neighborhood alone on Sunday.

The Palestinian government, which is led by Abbas of the Western-supported Palestinian Authority and by Hamas, the Islamist 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 Kerry appeared to express frustration.

On several Sunday talk shows, the secretary of state 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 to say: “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” adding, “We’ve 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, including many children, in an operation aimed at militants.

Asked if he was “upset that the Israelis are going too far,” Kerry replied, “It’s very, very difficult in these situations.”

He continued, “I reacted, obviously, in a way that anybody does with respect to young children and civilians.”

It was not clear whether the growing death toll and increasing pressure on both sides would help or hinder international efforts to forge a cease-fire.

Abbas was expected to meet on Sunday in Doha, Qatar, with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Qatari officials to discuss an Egyptian proposal for ending the fighting, according to Palestinian officials. Khaled Meshal, the political leader of Hamas, is also based in Qatar.

Before the meeting, Ban condemned the bombardment of Shejaiya, calling it an “atrocious action.” He also demanded an immediate halt to the Israeli offensive as well as rocket fire from Gaza. “All sides need to be assured that international humanitarian law counts — and that there will be accountability and justice for crimes committed by any party,” he said.

The Israeli military said it had agreed to a request from the International Committee of the Red Cross for a two-hour humanitarian cease-fire Sunday — from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. — to allow an emergency crew in to evacuate the dead and wounded from Shejaiya and to allow other residents to leave, but some fighting appeared to have resumed even before the first hour was up.

Soon after 3.30 p.m., the Israeli military said it would hold its fire in Shejaiya for an additional hour, though it accused Hamas of continuing to shoot. A short while later, it said that acceding to a Red Cross request, it was extending the cease-fire until 5:30.

At 5 p.m., barrages of rockets were fired from Gaza toward the southern Israeli cities of Beersheba, Ashkelon and Netivot. Some were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, and others landed harmlessly in open ground.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said ground forces had moved on Shejaiya overnight after area residents had been warned to leave for the past three days.

“The mission,” he said, “is targeting Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure, including significant rocket-launching capabilities and an extensive tunnel network designed to aid infiltration into Israel for attacks on soldiers and civilians. Other tunnels, he said, lead to concealed rocket launchers or weapons stores.

“They have made fortified positions of all the town,” Lerner added, describing a labyrinth of tunnels beneath houses, which he called “Lower Gaza.”

The military, he said, had found 10 access shafts leading to tunnels beneath Shejaiya, and 8 percent of the nearly 1,800 rockets fired into Israel since July 8 had been launched from Shejaiya.

Detecting and destroying the tunnel system has been a focus of the ground operation so far. Earlier Sunday the military said it had discovered 14 tunnels and dozens of access points. Armed militants from Gaza emerged from at least two tunnels dug under the border with Israel on Saturday, clashing with Israeli soldiers and killing two. On Sunday morning, the Israeli military said it had demolished two tunnels, including one it said led to Netiv Haasara, an Israeli border community just north of Gaza.

At the edge of Shejaiya, dark smoke rose above buildings Sunday and shelling cracked and thumped nearby with hardly a second’s pause between rounds. Shops were closed, and clusters of people periodically emerged from the narrower streets of the neighborhood and rushed up the hill toward downtown.

A chain of five children holding hands trotted uphill, dragged by an adult — the smallest boy, around 3, with an expression of confusion and terror. Barefoot, he clutched his flip-flops in his hand. A van drove by with five boys on its roof, the inside packed with people and mattresses. Taxis ventured only to the bottom of the street, where they picked up pedestrians, so many on occasion that some had to sit in an open hatchback or trunk.

At Shifa Hospital, a girl who looked about 9 was brought into the emergency room and laid on a gurney, blood soaking the shoulder of her shirt. Motionless and barely alive, she stared at the ceiling, her mouth open. There was no relative with her to give her name. The medical staff stood quietly around her. Every now and then, they checked her vital signs, until it was time. They covered her with a white sheet, and she was gone. A few moments later, a new patient lay on the gurney.

At one point in the dying girl’s final moments, a half-dozen journalists with television cameras crowded around the gurney. In the next bed, a small girl smudged with blood cried, “Mama! Mama!”

The hospital grounds were crowded with displaced families sitting on the grass. Some were sprinkled loosely in the sun, others packed side by side in the spots of shade.

Taghreed Harazin, 34, sat under a gazebo with her 6-month-old son, Diaa, in the car seat in which she had carried him on foot until finding a taxi. She said she had believed the evacuation order was only for the eastern part of the neighborhood, and mistakenly thought she would be safe at home. Moving was frightening, she said, because of airstrikes.

But during the night, as the family prepared their predawn Ramadan meal — only bread, since there was no electricity to cook with — heavy shelling started. They went to the basement for three hours, then ventured out at dawn.

As the family dashed through the streets to avoid crashing shells, Harazin, said, she saw the decapitated body of a boy who looked about 4, and a wounded woman in a black abaya nearby, both lying on the sidewalk. An ambulance came and took them both away.

“We are not Hamas, and we are not with the others,” Harazin said. “We just want to live in our homes. The people are not Hamas. Israel has a problem with Hamas. What’s the fault of the other people? We have nothing to do with it.”

Asked what she thought of Hamas’ handling of the current war, she said, “Sometimes it’s difficult to express your opinion.”

She primarily faulted Israel, saying, “They are shelling houses, people indiscriminately.” But she said that when it comes to Hamas’ actions, “If you say any word, it’s held against you.” She said her husband had been beaten for complaining about Hamas.

A lab technician, Harazin had brought a medical kit with her, along with her son’s diaper bag, in case anyone needed help. She had bandaged the foot of an elderly woman sitting next to her, who cut it on glass as she fled barefoot.

The woman, Wadha Abu Amr, said her family were refugees from what is now Beersheba. They fled from there in 1948 during the war over Israel’s founding.

“I’m afraid that this is another 1948,” she said, “God forbid. We were driven out in 1948 and we are being driven out again now.”

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