GAZA has suffered the highest death toll since Israel’s offensive began, with at least 87 people reported killed yesterday – 67 of them in one area.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said the deaths in the Shejaiya district east of Gaza City were a “massacre”. Witnesses spoke of bodies lying in the streets.
A humanitarian truce was agreed in the area, but lasted less than an hour.
Israel said 13 of its soldiers had been killed since Saturday night. The soldiers were all from the Golani Brigade, the Israel Defence Forces said.
At least 425 Palestinians and 20 Israelis have been killed in the near two-week conflict, which escalated as United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon headed to the region to try to revive ceasefire efforts.
Meanwhile, US secretary of state John Kerry said he expected to come to the Middle East in coming days, and that he supported Egypt’s call for an immediate ceasefire, which was rejected last week by Hamas.
Last night US president Barack Obama raised “serious concerns” to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the growing number of casualties in the Gaza conflict.
Hamas has said it wants guarantees that Gaza’s border blockade will be eased before agreeing to stop fighting.
The Israeli military said 8 per cent of more than 1,700 rockets fired at Israel since 8 July came from the Shijaiyah area and that its troops faced heavy resistance there yesterday.
Residents of the neighbourhood said Israeli tanks entered after midnight and fired heavily.
“The gate of hell has opened, and shrapnel came through the windows,” Jawad Hassanain said.
He said he and his family sought shelter in a nearby building after their house shook from the explosions.
“All you could hear is heavy bombardment, the smell of fire and the smell of death,” he said.
After daybreak, dozens of wounded from Shijaiyah were rushed to Gaza’s central Shifa Hospital. Frantic parents carried children bloodied by shrapnel, and the emergency department quickly overflowed, forcing doctors to treat some patients on mattresses in a hallway.
During a brief lull in the fighting brokered by the Red Cross, paramedics entered the neighbourhood to retrieve the dead, pulling bodies from the rubble of homes. Dozens of houses over several blocks were destroyed or badly damaged.
Yesterday afternoon, Gaza rescue workers searching Shijaiyah for bodies heard the faint voice of a woman coming from under the rubble of a house.
“I’m here with my husband and niece,” the woman said. “I am under the shop … God help, I can’t breathe.”
Rescue workers said the area was dangerous and believed they would not be able to dig her out in time.
Thousands of residents began fleeing Shijaiyah after daybreak yesterday, including a woman in a wheelchair who waved a white flag. Gaza’s health ministry later said about 35,000 people fled the fighting.
Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said forces met a “huge” level of resistance from Hamas militants in Shijaiyah, with anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons fired from houses and buildings. He said that so far, ten tunnel access shafts were found in the area.
Lt Col Lerner said Shijaiyah had been a major area for rocket launching and added that residents were warned ahead of the offensive to leave the area.
“We are mobilising in order to strike Hamas where it hurts,” he said.
Israel has said Hamas’ network of tunnels links sites for rocket building, maintenance and launching and stretches well into Israel.
Mr Netanyahu said Israel was only targeting militants in its campaign.
He said: “All civilian casualties are unintended by us, but intended by Hamas. They want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can … it’s gruesome.
“They use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. They want the more dead the better.”
Israel has also targeted homes of Hamas leaders, warning they would pay a high price.