Worst day of conflict in Gaza as 62 Palestinians die

UN convenes emergency Security Council meeting to discuss crisis

Palestinian men flee from a home in the Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza City. Photograph: Wissam Nassar/The New York Times

Palestinian men flee from a home in the Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza City. Photograph: Wissam Nassar/The New York Times

Mon, Jul 21, 2014, 01:00

The conflict in Gaza escalated dramatically yesterday when 62 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed after Israeli tanks and troops entered a crowded residential area in Gaza City.

Tens of thousands of people, some barefoot, fanned out across the impoverished coastal city after fleeing their homes in the eastern suburb of Shejaia, where entire streets were strewn with rubble and bodies. Shifa hospital, Gaza’s biggest, said it was overwhelmed by the injured on what was the deadliest day of the conflict so far.

The hospital’s director, Naser Tattar, said 17 children, 14 women and four elderly were among the 62 dead, and about 400 people were wounded in the Israeli assault.

A two-hour humanitarian ceasefire was organised by the Red Cross to retrieve the dead and the injured, but it only lasted an hour.

Late last night the UN Security Council was due to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the escalating situation, according to diplomats. The meeting was requested by Jordan.

A little earlier, Hamas claimed it had captured an Israeli soldier, but there was no immediate comment from Israel.

Humanitarian crisis

The exodus from Sajaiyya yesterday compounded an emerging humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency said it was providing emergency accommodation for 81,000 people in 61 shelters, many of them schools.

As protests took place in the West Bank over the ongoing bombardment, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of carrying out a massacre in Shejaia and declared three days of mourning.

Diplomatic efforts to secure a ceasefire continued with no signs of an imminent breakthrough, but in a phone call with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, US president Barack Obama said Washington was seeking “an immediate cessation of hostilities” between Israel and Hamas, based on the ceasefire agreement after the last Gaza confrontation in November 2012.

While reiterating the US’s support of Israel’s right to self-defence, Mr Obama also raised “serious concern” over the civilian casualties.

Egypt, Qatar, France and the United Nations have all been pushing for a permanent ceasefire to bring an end to the worst surge of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in two years.

The diplomatic shuttling will intensify today, when US secretary of state John Kerry travels to Cairo to press for a truce. Mr Abbas is due in Qatar to meet UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and Qatari officials. Khaled Meshal, the political leader of Hamas, is also based in Qatar.

Hamas has already rejected one Egyptian-brokered truce, saying a deal must include an end to blockade of the coastal area and release of prisoners.

Hamas targeted

Explaining yesterday’s incursion into Gaza City, Israel’s army said it was targeting militants from Hamas, whom it alleged had fired rockets from Shejaia and built tunnels and command centres there. The army said it had warned locals two days earlier to leave. It was the Israeli military’s highest one-day death toll since the 2006 war against Hizbullah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Hamas’s armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, said it used landmines and roadside bombs against advancing Israeli tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

Gaza’s health ministry officials said at least 405 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have been killed and about 2,600 wounded since Israeli air and naval bombardments began on July 8th, followed by a ground operation on Thursday.