The death toll in the Gaza Strip is mounting as Israel vows to expand its ground assault in the face of rocket fire from the Palestinian territory. A major attack on a Gaza district has meanwhile claimed many lives.
At least 40 Palestinians have been killed and hundreds wounded on Sunday in Israeli airstrikes and artillery barrages on the northeastern Gaza neighborhood of Shejaia, witnesses and health officials now say.
Witnesses said hundreds of residents were fleeing the area in what appears to be the deadliest single attack since Israel launched its offensive on the Gaza Strip on July 8.
Ambulances were reportedly unable to reach much of the area because of ongoing fire.
Earlier, an Israeli airstrike in the same area hit the home of Hamas leader Khalil al-Hayyah, killing three members of his family and a neighbor, doctors said.
Asked about the attack on Shejaia, an Israeli military spokeswoman said residents had received recorded messages to evacuate the area two days ago.
Hamas, the Islamist militant group that dominates the Gaza Strip, has reportedly told people throughout the territory to ignore Israeli warnings and stay in their homes.
Rising death toll
Israel meanwhile 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.
The Palestinian death toll before the Shejaia attack had risen to more than 350, with some 2,500 wounded. Seven Israelis, including two civilians, have also died since Israel's operation began.
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 Hamas for civilian deaths.
A statement from his office cited him as saying that the group 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 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/hc (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)