GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories: At least 40 Palestinians were killed as Israeli forces pounded northern Gaza Sunday, sending thousands fleeing in terror on day 13 of the deadliest assault on the enclave in five years.
The intensity of the bombardment prevented emergency services from accessing the area and dead bodies lay in the streets as thousands fled in terror, an AFP correspondent reported.
As UN chief Ban Ki-moon was to arrive in the region to add his weight to truce efforts, the Palestinian death spiralled towards 400, with medics warning it could rise further from the ongoing bombardment of areas north and east of Gaza City.
As the scale of the casualties emerged, a Hamas official said the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had called for a three-hour humanitarian ceasefire to enable ambulance crews to get in.
The Red Cross refused to confirm or deny it had made such a proposal, although media reports said the Israeli government was also studying a proposal by the international humanitarian agency.
Until now, the Islamist Hamas movement, which is the dominant power in Gaza, had refused to yield in the face of the relentless air, sea and land attacks.
It has pressed on with its own assaults which killed another two Israeli soldiers overnight, the army said.
As the warring sides showed no sign of giving up, diplomatic efforts to end the violence were to intensify Sunday with Hamas’s exiled leader Khaled Meshaal to meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Qatar to discuss an Egyptian truce proposal.
On the ground, the streets of the northern district of Shejaiya were filled with thousands of civilians fleeing for their lives after heavy shelling left casualties lying in the streets, an AFP correspondent reported.
Footage from the area showed vast clouds of black smoke billowing into the sky as the shelling continued and Gaza’s eastern flank burned.
Ambulances were unable to reach much of the area along the border because of heavy fire, and emergency services told AFP there were reports of dead and wounded trapped by the bombardment.
Emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said at least 40 bodies had been retrieved from the eastern Shejaiya district, with another 380 people wounded.
Among the dead were women and children, as well as a Palestinian paramedic and a cameraman who were killed when the ambulance they were in was hit, with the ongoing fire hampering efforts to recover the bodies.
“He wasn’t a fighter, he was a fighter for humanity,” wailed one relative as the family buried him. “
“He was an ambulance worker, did he deserve to die?”
– Agony, hysteria at hospital –
At Gaza City’s Shifa hospital, Doctor Said Hassan told AFP that ambulances were unable to reach everyone, with many of the wounded walking hours to get treatment.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said the doctor, who has worked at the hospital for eight years.
All around him, casualties were being brought in by the minute, some in ambulances, others in cars and trucks. Among them were children screaming in agony, many peppered with shrapnel wounds.
Fights broke out in the emergency room as hysterical parents banged on the walls in fear and sorrow.
“The shelling was non-stop, it was everywhere,” Sabah Mamluk, 40, told AFP.
“We ran into the streets and started to walk. It was terrifying,” she said.
“We got split up and found an ambulance that could bring us, but my husband is still there with the rest of the children and I can’t reach him by telephone.”
Early on Sunday, the army confirmed two more soldiers had been killed overnight, raising to seven the overall Israeli toll.
Four soldiers were killed on Saturday, among them two who died in militant raid inside Israel. Another was killed by an anti-tank missile while the fourth died in a firefight with a militant, the army said.
Israel said its ground operation to destroy the network of tunnels used by militants to stage cross-border attacks was to “expand” later Sunday.
“This evening, the ground phase of Operation Protective Edge expands, as additional forces join the effort to combat terror in the Gaza Strip and establish a reality in which Israeli residents can live in safety and security,” the army said.
– Displaced numbers triple –
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put the blame for civilian casualties squarely on Hamas, accusing the group of “using innocent civilians as human shields.”
Earlier this week, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees expressed outrage after finding 20 rockets stored in one of its empty schools in Gaza.
So far, UNRWA has opened 55 of its schools to shelter those fleeing the most heavily bombarded areas, with more than 63,000 people taking refuge in them, the agency said.
“The number has tripled in the last three days reflecting the intensity of the conflict and the inordinate threats the fighting is posing to civilians,” spokesman Chris Gunness said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Hamas confirmed Meshaal had received an invitation for talks in Cairo on an Egyptian peace initiative. Egyptian officials were unable to confirm or deny the new invitation.
Earlier this week, an Egyptian truce proposal was accepted by Israel, but snubbed by Hamas, which said it had not been consulted.
Abbas and Meshaal were to meet in Doha later Sunday to discuss the Egyptian proposal, an official close to Abbas said.
The UN chief was also due in the Qatari capital.