GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP – Escalating their ground offensive, Israeli troops backed by tanks and warplanes battled Hamas militants in a crowded neighborhood of Gaza City on Sunday. The fighting, including heavy Israeli tank fire, killed scores of Palestinians, forced thousands to flee their homes and left dozens of homes destroyed.
Palestinian health officials reported at least 50 dead in air and artillery strikes that echoed across the city for hours and sent panicked residents fleeing, many carrying small children and waving white flags. Gaza officials said 35,000 people fled their homes Sunday.
The nearly two-week conflict has killed more than 400 Palestinians and seven Israelis, and appeared to be escalating as U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon headed to the region to try to revive cease-fire efforts.
After daybreak, dozens of wounded from Shijaiyah were rushed to Gaza City’s central Shifa Hospital. Frantic parents carried children bloodied by shrapnel, and the emergency room quickly overflowed, forcing doctors to treat some patients on mattresses in a hallway.
“The gate of hell has opened, and shrapnel came through the windows,” said Shijaiyah resident Jawad Hassanain, speaking by phone. He said he and his family sought shelter in a nearby building after their house shook from the explosions.
“From 12:30 a.m. until 4 a.m., all you could hear is heavy bombardment, the smell of fire and the smell of death. By 4:30, and after the call for the prayer, we were able to get in an ambulance,” which took them to his sister’s neighborhood, he said.
Following a request by the Red Cross, Israel and Hamas said they agreed to a brief, local cease-fire to enable rescue services to attend to the dead and wounded. The truce did not last for the designated period, and each side blamed the other for violating it.
Israeli troops pushed into Gaza late Thursday after more than a week of airstrikes failed to halt unrelenting Palestinian rocket fire that has increasingly targeted major Israeli cities. Israel has said the operation is aimed at halting the rockets as well as destroying tunnels that militants have used to stage cross-border raids.
The military said it has hit more than 2,500 targets in Gaza, including 1,100 rocket launchers, during the 13 days of fighting. It said that some 70 militants were killed and another 13 brought to Israel for questioning.
Gaza militants have fired more than 1,760 rockets at Israeli cities since July 8, the military said.
Throughout the night, loud explosions shook Gaza as Israeli flares lit up the sky and fighter jets flew low over the coastal territory.
The Hamas military wing said its fighters exchanged fire with Israeli forces in Shijaiyah and a nearby neighborhood. The sound of gunfire could be heard from the city center.
In a separate confrontation, Islamic Jihad fighters ambushed Israeli troops near the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, the group said, adding that Israeli helicopter gunships had joined the battle.
The heavy fighting came as Ban headed to Qatar to try to push stalled cease-fire efforts forward. He was set to meet Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Gulf state, according to Abbas’ spokesman. Abbas also plans to meet Hamas’ top leader Khaled Mashaal.
Hamas last week rejected an Egyptian call on both sides to halt hostilities, saying it first wants guarantees that Israel and Egypt will significantly ease their border blockade of Gaza, which has been ruled by the Islamic militant group since 2007.
Hamas has sought involvement of other countries, such as Qatar, in any cease-fire negotiations. The militant group is deeply distrustful of Egypt’s rulers, who last year deposed a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo.
Since the start of Israel-Hamas fighting almost two weeks ago, 410 Palestinians have been killed and 3,000 wounded, according to Gaza Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Kidra. More than one-fourth of the deaths have been reported since the start of the ground offensive late Thursday.
Two Israeli soldiers died in the Gaza fighting late Saturday and early Sunday morning, bringing the Israeli military death toll to five in the three days since ground operations began. Two Israeli civilians have perished from Hamas rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli territory.
Dozens of Israeli soldiers have been wounded since the start of the ground operation, according to Israeli hospitals treating them.
The Israel military meanwhile said it was establishing a field hospital at a crossing with Gaza to treat wounded Palestinians.
In Shijaiyah, the heavy shelling began around midnight as tanks reached the edge of the neighborhood, residents said. In the first hours of shelling, it was too dangerous for ambulances to approach and residents said they saw dead and wounded in the streets. Casualties were later evacuated.
Hundreds of residents began fleeing the neighborhood after daybreak, including a woman in a wheelchair who waved a white flag. Columns of smoke rose from the neighborhood as the sound of shelling echoed from inside.
A man walking in the street said his son was trapped in the family house and that he needed someone to help rescue him. He then got into an ambulance to reach his house, but tank fire hit nearby and the ambulance quickly turned around to get away.
The bodies of a man and a woman could be seen in the rubble of a house that had been completely destroyed.
Among those killed in Shijaiyah on Sunday was Osama al-Haya, a son of senior Hamas leader Khalil al-Haya. Osama al-Haya’s wife and two children, ages four and six, were also killed, Palestinian health officials said.
Some residents tried to find refuge with relatives, while others went to U.N. schools that have been serving as temporary shelters since the start of the fighting.
Some 63,000 Palestinians are already staying in United Nations shelters, according to UNRWA, the U.N. refugee agency for Palestinians. The number of people who have fled their homes has more than tripled since the start of Israel’s ground operation and the agency said it planned to open more schools.