Death toll in Gaza tops 300, official says

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JERUSALEM — In his Gaza home, Ramez al-Madhoun listens Saturday to the thunder of Israeli tank shells battering the neighborhood — some a little less than a mile away, some closer.

A few miles south of him, Gazan militants’ rockets stream into the sky — about seven in 15 minutes — toward Israel.

The tanks are gunning for tunnels leading into Israel and the Gazan attack squads that use them.

Al-Madhoun says he feels safer during Israeli airstrikes.

“If it was an airstrike, it would be more of a precision strike, but the tanks shells are more dangerous. They are destroying more than the airstrikes,” he said.

Every 30 seconds to a minute, a shell comes down in or around Beit Lahya. The local imam has told residents to stay home and pray, because the shelling has made it to dangerous to go outside, al-Madhoun says.

Since morning, 11 more people have died in Gaza, according to the health ministry. The toll there has reached 339 since the Israeli military operation Protective Edge began July 8, the ministry says. A fifth of those deaths are children.

More than 70% killed have been civilians, according to the United Nations.

Two Israeli soldiers were killed and several more wounded Saturday, officials said.

The Israeli military also encountered a suicide donkey — one loaded with explosives — approaching soldiers near Rafah. The troops fired on the animal, detonating the bombs and killing the donkey Friday night. Fighting raged there Saturday with Hamas brigades shelling an armored vehicle, Hamas said.

Attacking Israel

In southeastern Israel, a rocket from Gaza crashed into Negev early Saturday, killing an Israeli, the Israel Defense Forces reported.

The rocket wounded four others, a hospital spokesman says. One of them is a 3-month-old; its wounds are severe.

Two Israelis have been killed by apparent Hamas rockets in the past week’s warfare.

In Gaza, the al-Qassam Brigade announced that it sent an attack squad to Eshkol, just on the other side of the border. The IDF has the entire district, or regional council, under military lockdown to avoid Israeli civilian deaths.

But next to Eshkol’s Kibbutz Beeri, a militant squad popped up out of tunnel to carry out an attack. They quickly crossed paths with an IDF patrol, and a firefight erupted, the IDF says.

A Palestinian militant was killed and four Israeli soldiers injured. The IDF pushed the rest of the attackers back into Gaza, where the air force pursued them farther.

Then, sirens howled an incoming rocket warning over Eshkol. The two missiles fell into open areas.

Warnings also sounded Saturday about missiles over the Israeli cities of Ashkelon, Rishon Letzion, Rehovot and Beer Sheva. The rocket aimed at Beer Sheva exploded in an unpopulated area.

1,663 rockets, 2,300 strikes

Since Operation Protective Edge began, militants in Gaza have launched 1,663 rockets, the IDF said in a statement Saturday. The Israeli rocket defense system Iron Dome has intercepted 346 of them.

The IDF has struck “2,300 terror targets” in Gaza, the statement said. In its recently launched ground operations, the IDF targeted 95 rocket-launching sites and found 13 tunnels with a network of at least 34 shafts.

Al-Aqsa TV reported Friday that Israel had sent text messages to many Palestinians telling them of safe corridors to reach central Gaza.

Before the land incursion, the IDF dropped leaflets in 14 areas of Gaza, urging residents to temporarily leave their homes. But many have nowhere to go in the small, impoverished strip of land. Border crossings with Israel and Egypt are closed.

“The IDF is a moral military without peer; it does not aspire to harm any innocent person,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said before a special Cabinet meeting Friday. “We are operating only against terrorist targets, and we regret any inadvertent civilian casualties. It is the terrorist organizations — which attack our cities and our civilians and use their civilians as human shields — that bear the responsibility for casualties among noncombatants.”

The new warfare in Gaza, however, has displaced more than 61,479 Palestinians, a figure harkening to the peak number from Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-09. It killed 1,166 Palestinians, including 709 Hamas operatives, according to the United Nations.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East is now seeking $60 million for its work in Gaza. The agency shelters the displaced families in 44 schools.

Health ministry: 72 of the dead in Gaza are children

The flash of assorted ordnance illuminated Gaza’s night sky on Friday as Israeli forces and Hamas militants clashed throughout the 27-mile-long Palestinian territory.

With fighting reported all along the coastal enclave, casualties poured into Gaza City’s Shifaa Hospital, including children, after Israeli artillery shelled east of the city, physicians told Hamas-run Al-Aqsa TV.

Children are 72 of the dead, said Gaza health ministry spokesman Dr. Ashraf al-Qedra. About 2,500 people have been injured in Gaza in the fighting.

Hospitals say they are running out of emergency medical supplies.

A family of eight died when Israeli artillery shells hit their northern Gaza home, the health ministry said.

It’s the region where al-Madhoun lives, which borders on two sides with Israel. He can hear automatic gunfire in the distance.

On Friday, an Israeli soldier died nearby in friendly fire, the IDF said. Seven soldiers were wounded.

Netanyahu has warned that Israeli ground troops are prepared to expand an offensive against Hamas militants after Hamas rejected an Egyptian-backed cease-fire proposal.

Hamas leaders complained that they had not been consulted on the deal. They wanted Israel to free Palestinian prisoners and to ease a border blockade that has been in effect for much of the past seven years on Gaza.

“Look, we have some demands,” senior Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad said. “They should listen to us. We are not against this cease-fire. We want to live. We want to be also in a good situation.”

And so the war goes on — along with the war of words.

Netanyahu has said Israel had no choice but to take the fight to Gaza to protect its people. In his remarks Friday, he stressed that Israel has the moral high ground in the conflict.

“Now I know that in such campaigns, global public opinion always receives a distorted picture of the campaign,” the Prime Minister continued. “This is unavoidable. But, unlike in the past, this time there are many in the international community who understand that it is Hamas — and Hamas alone — that is responsible for the victims.”

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zhuri condemned the Israeli leader.

“Netanyahu is killing our children, and he will pay the price. The ground invasion is not scaring us. We pledge to drown the occupation army in Gaza’s mud.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is scheduled to travel to the region Saturday in an effort to talk about peace.

Palestinian diplomatic scramble

Palestinian leaders from the West Bank also pulled strings in the region.

President Mahmoud Abbas will travel this weekend to Qatar. “We’re exerting every possible effort in order to do one thing: stop this bloodshed,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said early Saturday.

“In the last 24 hours, 68 Palestinians have been killed. … This madness must stop,” he said.

Abbas met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and spoke with Pope Francis about the conflict.

Francis also spoke with Israeli President Shimon Peres on Friday, according to a government news release, “and asked to deliver a message of coexistence, moderation and peace to all the citizens of the region in light of the current security situation.”

Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul let loose on Israel on Friday, accusing its leaders of “terrorizing the region” and “committing genocide.”

“I am warning Israel one more time: If they don’t stop attacks on Gaza, the consequences might be heavier, and the outcome will be massive,” Gul said.

No water, some food

In Beit Lahya, Al-Madhoun can’t get to his well to get water. His pumps are electric, and Friday’s fighting knocked out power. It surges back for a few moments at a time, but it’s hardly reliable.

He has to wait for rations.

“The water from the municipality is going to be distributed to us for two hours in a 24-hour cycle,” he said.

If there is a break in the shelling, he can go south to Jabalya, where it’s less dangerous, to stock up on food. He goes every two or three days.

“We don’t know when that will run out,” he said.

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