Israel accused of ‘war crimes’ as Gaza shelling kills 62

Palestinian death toll passes 400 but Netanyahu still defiant about military action

A medic helps a Palestinian man in the Shejaia neighbourhood, which was heavily shelled by Israel today leaving at least 60 people dead. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters.

A medic helps a Palestinian man in the Shejaia neighbourhood, which was heavily shelled by Israel today leaving at least 60 people dead. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/Reuters.

 

The Arab League has described Israeli attacks on Gaza that killed at least 60 Palestinians today as a “war crime”.

Palestinian witnesses and officials said at least 62 Palestinians were killed in shelling of the Gaza neighbourhood of Shejaja that left bodies strewn in the streets and thousands fleeing for shelter.

The Israeli military said militants from Gaza’s dominant Hamas group responded with anti-tank missiles and heavy weapon fire in some of the bloodiest fighting since Israel launched its Gaza offensive 13 days ago.

“Nabil el-Araby (the head of the Arab League) considered Israel’s terrible shelling and ground attack operations in the neighbourhood of Shejaia as a war crime against Palestinian civilians and a dangerous escalation,” the Arab League said in a statement today.

Israel says its air strikes, naval barrages and ground assault in Gaza, controlled by Islamist group Hamas, aim to halt rockets fired into Israeli territory. Analysts say its estimates of the size of Hamas’ remaining arsenal will be a key factor in its deliberations on how long to continue the offensive.

Israel’s military said 13 soldiers were killed in a series of attacks in the Gaza Strip today, which it said was the heaviest Israeli death toll in a single day of battle in years.

Hamas militants said they had ambushed Israeli troops and detonated explosives around their vehicle in the Palestinian territory. Other Islamist militants said they had attacked soldiers in a Gaza house.

A two-hour humanitarian ceasefire in the area, agreed by both sides at the request of the International Committee of the Red Cross, broke down within minutes with each side blaming the other.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said today that Israel will take “whatever action is necessary” to halt Hamas cross-border rocket attacks from Gaza and restore calm but insisted his forces were doing their utmost to avoid civilian casualties there.

“We try to target military targets and unfortunately there are civilian casualties which we regret and we don’t seek,” Mr Netanyahu told CNN shortly after the attack that killed at least 62 Palestinians.

He accused Hamas of deliberately targeting Israeli civilians and of using Gaza residents as “human shields.” Asked how long it would take Israel to complete an operation it says is intended to destroy Hamas weapons tunnels, Mr Netanyahu said it was being done “fairly quickly,” but gave no time frame.

Asked whether Israel intends to reoccupy the Gaza Strip, he said: “Nobody wants to go to excessive military lengths.”

Mr Netanyahu also criticised a comments made by Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan. The Islamist-rooted Mr Erdogan accused Israel of having “surpassed Hitler in barbarism” through its attacks on the Palestinian territory, but warned Turks against taking out their anger on Jews.

“I heard the things the prime minister of Turkey said, words of the utmost gravity,” Mr Netanyahu told reporters. “I told (US secretary of state) John Kerry, (these are) anti-Semitic statements, they have an anti-Semitic tone.”

Mr Kerry today said the United States believed Israel has a right to defend itself from rockets fired from Gaza and from attacks launched out of cross-border tunnels.

“You have a right to go in and take out those tunnels,” Mr Kerry told Fox News. “We completely support that. And we support Israel’s right to defend itself against rockets that are continuing to come in.”

Mr Kerry also called on Hamas to consider a ceasefire. “It is important for Hamas to now step up and be reasonable and understand that (if) you accept the ceasefire, you save lives,” he said.

In a separate interview on CNN, Mr Kerry said he expected president Barack Obama would ask him to go to the Middle East soon to aid in efforts to secure a ceasefire.

In Gaza today, anguished cries of “Did you see Ahmed?” “Did you see my wife?” echoed through the courtyard of the Shifa hospital, where panicked residents of Shejaia gathered in family groups as bodies and wounded lay on blood-stained floors inside following the deadly Israeli attack.

Elderly men there said the assault was the fiercest they had seen since the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel captured Gaza.

Shifa 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.

Gaza’s health ministry officials said at least 403 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have been killed and about 2,600 wounded in the 13-day offensive, that Israel says it launched to halt mounting cross-border rocket fire by militants.

On Israel’s side, two civilians have been killed by cross-border fire and five soldiers have died in fighting. More than 50 Israeli troops have been wounded, hospital officials said.

Thousands fled Shejaia, some by foot and others piling into the backs of trucks and sitting on the hoods of cars filled with families trying to get away. Several people rode out of the neighbourhood of 100,000 in the shovel of a bulldozer.

As the tank shells began to land, Shejaia residents called radio stations pleading for evacuation. An air strike on the Shejaia home of Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas official, killed his son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, hospital officials said.

The Israeli military said it beefed up its presence today, with a focus on destroying missile stockpiles and a vast tunnel system Hamas built along the frontier with Israel.

“It has been a tough day of combat, but it won’t deter us,” Israeli finance minister Yair Lapid said, without referring to events in Shejaia. “The operation is necessary and, if needed, we will broaden it.”

Militants kept up their rocket fire on Israel today with sirens sounding in southern Israeli towns and in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. There were no reports of casualties on the Israeli side.

Agencies