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An Israeli convoy manoeuvres outside central Gaza Strip July 19, 2014. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
Image: Reuters

Gaza assault 'to widen'

Timothy Jones
July 20, 2014

Israel says it is sending more troops into Gaza as it again expands its ground offensive in the Palestinian territory. The intensified violence comes ahead of a visit to the region by UN chief Ban Ki-moon.


Israel said on Sunday it was going to step up its ground offensive in the Gaza Strip even further in a campaign it says is aimed at stopping Palestinian militants firing rockets into its territory.

"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 in a statement.

Over the weekend, Israeli troops destroyed a number of tunnels used by militants to carry out attacks in Israel, the army said.

Israeli airstrikes overnight to Sunday killed more than a dozen people in Gaza, bringing the Palestinian death toll to 357, with some 2,500 wounded. Seven Israelis, including two civilans, have died since Israel's operation began on July 8.

Palestinian health officials say a quarter of Palestinian deaths have been reported since the ground offensive began late on Thursday. The UN children's agency, UNICEF, says at least 73 of the victims were under the age of 18.

Israel blames Hamas

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has blamed the Islamist militant group Hamas, which dominates Gaza, for civilian deaths.

A statement from his office cited him as saying that Hamas was "using innocent civilians as human shields for its terrorist activities; it is responsible if civilians are inadvertently hit."

Hamas denies the charges.

Earlier in the week, however, the UN's Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, said it found 20 rockets stored in one of its schools in Gaza, and condemned the "group or groups" involved.

Around 1,333 rockets have hit Israel over the past few weeks, with 360 intercepted by the Israeli Iron Dome defense system.

Diplomatic efforts

Diplomatic efforts to end the violence are set to intensify on Sunday with the arrival of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in the region as part of renewed ceasefire efforts.

Truce talks have stalled after Hamas last week rejected an Egyptian appeal to both sides to call a cease-fire and hold talks. The militant group says it first wants guarantees that Israel and Egypt will ease their blockade of Gaza.

However, Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal was scheduled to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Qatar to discuss the Egyptian-proposed truce. The group also says it has been invited to Cairo for ceasefire talks.

Hamas is suspicious of the Egytian authorities, who last year deposed a Hamas-friendly government, and has sought involvement of other countries, such as Qatar, in any cease-fire negotiations.

tj/av (AFP, AP)