GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP – Israeli troops uncovered more than a dozen cross-border tunnels and battled Gaza militants on the second day of an open-ended ground operation Saturday as the Palestinian death toll climbed to 325 and diplomats scrambled to revive cease-fire efforts.
The Israeli military said it had severely diminished the arsenal of Hamas, the Islamic militant group ruling Gaza, but the militants have continued to fire rockets and on Saturday staged another unsuccessful cross-border tunnel raid.
In the northern Gaza Strip, Palestinian officials reported intensified Israeli airstrikes, shelling and numerous civilian casualties, including a mother and four children, as dozens of wounded were rushed to a local hospital in Beit Lahiya. Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra said the new round of airstrikes raised the death toll from the 12-day offensive to 325 Palestinians, many of them civilians and about a fifth of them children.
In Israel, a Gaza rocket killed a 30-year-old man near the southern city of Dimona and injured four others, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, marking the second Israeli civilian casualty from the latest round of fighting. An Israeli soldier was killed after the start of the ground operation, likely from friendly fire.
The Israeli military said that during its first 24 hours on the ground in Gaza troops had discovered 13 tunnels into Israel — some as deep as 30 meters — that could be used to carry out attacks. The military said it thwarted a second infiltration attempt through such a tunnel, killing one militant and forcing the others to return to Gaza.
The military also said that in 12 days of fighting it has hit 2,350 targets in Gaza, including 1,100 rocket launchers.
Militants have fired more than 1,600 rockets since the latest round of fighting began on July 8. Rocket fire continued overnight, including one that landed in a residential neighborhood in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, causing no injuries.
“We have struck hard on the two main strategic assets of Hamas: the rockets and these tunnels,” said Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner.
Israel says it has encountered little resistance on the ground so far, and has killed about 20 militants in sporadic gunbattles. Three soldiers were wounded in overnight fighting, one seriously, the military said.
In one case, it said troops encountered a man who appealed for medical assistance before pulling out grenades and trying to hurl them at soldiers. He was shot dead. Troops also encountered a donkey with explosives strapped to it.
Casualties could mount quickly if the military moves further into urban areas.
Some 50,000 Palestinians are already staying in United Nations shelters, according to UNRWA, the U.N. refugee agency for Palestinians.
Israel launched the ground operation late Thursday after hundreds of airstrikes on the Hamas-ruled territory failed to halt unrelenting rocket fire that has increasingly targeted major Israeli cities. Al-Kidra said 75 Palestinians have been killed since the ground offensive began.
An Egyptian truce proposal was rejected by Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007 and has demanded the lifting of an Israeli and Egyptian blockade as part of any ceasefire agreement.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri on Saturday repeated a call for the two sides to adopt its cease-fire initiative, saying it is the only offer on the table, despite efforts from Hamas backers Turkey and Qatar to broker a deal.
“This initiative still presents the chance for the two sides to cease fire, ending the bloodshed,” he said. “It meets the needs of both sides. We will continue to propose it. We hope both sides accept it.”
In a fresh effort to broker a truce, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon was to leave later Saturday for the Middle East to help mediate the Gaza conflict. A cease-fire is “indispensable” for urgently needed humanitarian efforts to succeed, the under-secretary-general for political affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, told an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Friday.
Israeli officials have said the offensive could last up to two weeks. The military reported making steady progress but said dozens of tunnels remain and would not give a time frame for its operation.
Israeli military chief Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz visited troops on the Gaza border early Saturday and said “a strategic national patience is necessary” to complete the mission. “Hamas and other terror organizations have been hit hard, painfully and extensively,” he added.
But Gaza militants have remained defiant despite the heavy death toll. The Israeli military said it foiled another infiltration attempt Saturday, as militants trying to get into Israel through a tunnel opened fire on Israeli troops with machine guns and anti-tank fire. Israeli troops fired back, killing one and forcing the others to flee back to Gaza, the military said.
“The Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip will not surrender to the enemy and will not raise the white flag,” Ziad Nakhala, a leader in the Islamic Jihad militant group, told a Palestinian radio station. “We are open to all possibilities as long as the enemy does not respond to the demands of the resistance.”
Hamas has survived Israeli offensives in the past, including a major three-week ground operation in January 2009 and another weeklong air offensive in 2012. It now controls an arsenal of thousands of rockets, including long-range projectiles, and has built a system of underground bunkers.
But Hamas is weaker than it was during the previous two offensives, with little international or even regional support from its main allies, Turkey and Qatar. Protests against the offensive took place Friday in Turkey, Jordan and the West Bank.