Gaza: Palestinian death toll passes 550

AT LEAST five people were killed and 70 injured by an Israeli strike on a hospital in Gaza yesterday, Palestinians said.

Palestinian celebrate after an Israeli soldier was reportedly captured. Picture: AFP/Getty

The Israeli military said it believed anti-tank missiles were being stored in the al-Aqsa hospital’s “immediate vicinity”. It is the fourth hospital to be hit since Israel launched its offensive in the territory.

The Palestinia”n death toll rose above 550 yesterday according to the Palestinian health ministry, with more than 3,500 others wounded.

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Meanwhile, the Israeli army said it had killed ten militants who tunnelled into Israel, taking the total to more than 170 militants killed since last Thursday, when it launched the ground offensive phase of its two-week-old operation to subdue Hamas.

Palestinian celebrate after an Israeli soldier was reportedly captured. Picture: AFP/Getty

Last night it said seven Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers had been killed “in the past 24 hours”, taking the total number to 25 troops killed in Operation Protective Edge. Two Israeli civilians have also died.

Meanwhile, US secretary of state John Kerry flew to Cairo to try to secure an end to the conflict. However, despite a United Nations Security Council appeal on Sunday for an immediate ceasefire in the worst bout of Palestinian-Israeli violence for more than five years, neither the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas nor Israel appeared ready to stop fighting.

Hamas yesterday continued to fire rockets deep into Israel and to dispatch infiltrators. And Israeli jets, tanks and artillery continuously pounded the densely-populated coastal strip. In one incident, 28 members of a single family were killed.

At al-Aqsa hospital in the central Gaza Strip, five people were killed and 70 wounded when an Israeli tank shell slammed into the third floor, which houses operating theatres and an intensive care unit, the health ministry said. Many of those who were wounded were said to be medical staff.

The IDF has accused Hamas militants of firing rockets from the grounds of Gaza hospitals and seeking refuge there.

The International Committee of the Red Cross tweeted last night: “Gaza’s AlAqsa Hospital under direct fire at least 4 times today. Surgical ward, intensive care unit, life-saving material ­severely damaged.

“Under international law, all parties have an obligation to respect and to protect medical personnel, ambulances and ­facilities.”

The UN has also said that 43 per cent of Gaza is now ­“affected by evacuation warnings” or declared a “no-go area”. In the past four days, the numbers seeking shelter in UN-run schools topped 100,00, according to United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

In another incident last night, rescuers were believed to have been killed after entering a building in Gaza City hit by Israeli fire, only for it to collapse.

Elsewhere, the US yesterday confirmed that two of the IDF soldiers killed over the weekend held dual US-Israeli citizenship. The state department named them as Max Steinberg of California and Nissim Carmeli of Texas. Mr Carmeli was set to be buried last night, when his parents had arrived in Israel.

President Barack Obama yesterday said: “We have serious concerns about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives, and that is why it now has to be our focus and the focus of the international community to bring about a ceasefire that ends the fighting and can stop the deaths of innocent civilians.”

Hamas announced late on Sunday night that it had captured an Israeli soldier in Gaza, displaying a photo ID card and serial number, though it did not release a photograph of the soldier in captivity.

Israel’s ambassador to the UN denied the claim, though a military spokesman said: “We still cannot rule it out.”

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhr said: “Israel has terribly failed and we advise them to take their soldiers and leave before we kidnap more soldiers in addition to the scores we have already killed and wounded.” The announcement of the captured soldier set off rejoicing in the embattled Gaza Strip.

Any capture of an Israeli soldier would pile pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2011, he agreed to free more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners to secure the release of a soldier held for more than five years in Gaza, and officials have said they want to avoid any repeat of that prolonged drama.

Many flags flew at half-mast in Israel yesterday and funerals have been held for some of the IDF soldiers – but no leading figures have questioned the operation. Newspaper columnist Ben Caspit wrote: “We need to continue to grit our teeth, to shut our ears, to ignore the background noise and to get the job done.”

Explosions rocked Gaza City yesterday morning, with residents reporting heavy fighting in Shejaia and the adjacent Zeitoun neighbourhood. Locals also said there was heavy shelling in Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip.

“It seems we are heading towards a massacre in Beit Hanoun. They drove us out of our houses with their fire. We carried our kids and ran away,” said Abu Ahmed, 50. “It was a night of horror.”

At the other end of Gaza, medics said 28 members of the Abu Jamea family died when their house was hit by a bomb.

Nearby, ten members of the Seyam family died when they were hit by a tank shell as they tried to flee their house, officials said.