Israeli soldier captured, 70 Palestinians reported dead in worst day of conflict

William Booth, Sudarsan Raghavan and Ruth Eglash — Washington Post July 20, 2014

Seventy Palestinians were killed Sunday in a heavy bombardment of a Gaza neighborhood and 13 Israeli soldiers were slain in the most intense day of fighting in Israel’s current offensive against Hamas fighters, officials said. The Hamas military also announced its fighters had captured an Israeli soldier.

Abu Obaida, a spokesman for the Al Qassam Brigades, appeared on Hamas TV to announce the soldier had been taken prisoner. Minutes later, there were fireworks in the streets and shouts of “God is great!” from loudspeakers in mosques.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said the army was investigating the claim.

A kidnapped Israeli soldier would represent a victory for Hamas and a difficult new challenge for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The smoke from battle drifts over Gaza

The smoke from battle drifts over Gaza

The last Israeli soldier abducted by Hamas was Gilad Shalit, who spent more than five years in captivity before being released in a controversial prisoner exchange in 2011 that freed 1027 Palestinian security prisoners, some of whom carried out terror attacks against Israeli civilians. Shalit was captured by Hamas operatives who tunneled into Israel and snatched the corporal.

The reported seizure of the Israeli soldier capped the most violent day of the nearly two-week-old offensive. So far, 18 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the armed forces launched a ground operation Thursday after days of airstrikes on the coastal strip, the Israeli military said. The Israeli death toll is now higher than during the Israeli military’s 2009 incursion into Gaza, when 13 Israelis were killed.

overnight Sunday, producing gruesome images of bodies in the streets amid masses of rubble. The Gaza Health Ministry said 70 Palestinians were killed in the fighting in Shijaiyah. All told, almost 100 Gaza residents have died in 24 hours, the highest daily total.

There are also more than 81,000 displaced people seeking refuge in 61 shelters run by the United Nations.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry is planning to travel to Cairo soon to seek “an immediate cessation of hosilities” in the conflict, the White House said in a statement. It said that President Obama spoke on Sunday with Netanyahu, reaffirming Israel’s right to defend itself but raisign “serious concerns” about the growing number of casualties in the fighting.

Thousands of panicked residents were pouring out of Shijaiyah in mass flight Sunday morning. The scene at Shifa Medical Center, Gaza’s main hospital, was chaotic. Ambulance drivers reported great difficulty entering the district, which bore the brunt of continuous fire.

After a brief lull at dawn, there was an increase of artillery and tank shelling at midmorning on Sunday. Explosions sounded closer to the center of Gaza City, and the sky was filled with Israeli drones witnessing the exodus of civilians.

Scenes of devastation on the streets of Gaza after Iraeli bombardment

Scenes of devastation on the streets of Gaza after an Israeli bombardment.

Residents said land and naval bombardment around Shijaiyah was the heaviest in the 13 days of fighting, but there was also intense firing east of Khan Younis and in the far south by Rafah.

Israel’s economy minister Naftali Bennett, one of the coalition government’s hard-liners and a former company commander of special forces, said, “I do not rule out the goal of toppling the Hamas regime.” He said, “there is a world of weapons tunnels penetrating into Israel, creating the possibility of a mega-attack.”

But Capt. Eytan Buchman, an Israeli military spokesman, said that the military had no intention of reoccupying Gaza and that the main objective of the ground offensive hadn’t changed: to destroy the tunnel network and rocket launchers that Hamas militants have used to attack Israel.

“We’ve expanded the forces on the ground in order to accomplish that mission,” Buchman said. “All of Gaza is an underground city, and the amount of infrastructure Hamas built up over the years is immense. There are tunnels, extended bunkers, weapons storage facilities, even within urban areas.”

The location of Shijaiyah, not even a mile from the border, made the destruction of its extensive tunnels a priority, Buchman said. The militants, he added, were fighting back fiercely.

“We are encountering significant resistance — antitank missiles fired from urban areas, as well as light arms fire,” Buchman said. “The tunnels are a strategic asset. Hamas is not giving up easily.”

The Israeli military said Shijaiyah has also been targeted because 8 percent of all rockets fired by Hamas and other militant groups into Israel since the conflict began have come from the neighborhood. The area also sits on a slight rise, offering a strategic vantage point. From Shijaiyah, it is just a few miles into the center of Gaza City.

The Associated Press reported that an Israeli airstrike on the home of senior Hamas official Khalil al-Haiya killed his son, daughter-in-law and two children, according to hospital officials.

Residents in Shijaiyah said they had received phone calls warning them of the Israeli army’s imminent attack and urging them to move west. Buchman said the military had sent pre-recorded messages to residents two days ago, warning them to evacuate. He said that in general “we attempt as much as possible to use pinpoint fire whenever possible.”

Despite Israeli claims that it is doing its utmost to avoid civlian casualties, nearly 400 Palestinians have thus far been killed in the ongoin offensive. Most of them civilians. Prompting some observers to wonder if this isn't intentional?

Despite Israeli claims that it is doing its utmost to avoid civlian casualties, nearly 400 Palestinians have thus far been killed in the ongoin offensive. Most of them civilians. Prompting some observers to wonder if this isn’t intentional?

In a Twitter feed, the Israeli military said Hamas militants ordered residents of Shijaiyah not to evacuate and so “put them in the line of fire.”

The army also announced that it would open a field hospital Sunday night on Israel’s side of the Erez crossing, the main gateway into Gaza, to treat wounded Palestinians.

News agencies in Gaza reported that a Palestinian cameraman was killed near Shijaiyah.

Hamas officials asked the Red Crescent medical aid organization for a two-hour cease-fire to collect injured people trapped by the fighting.

Before the overnight assault, Hamas militants were intensifying their attacks on Israeli forces. In an audacious attack Saturday, Hamas fighters dressed in Israeli army uniforms slipped from central Gaza into Israel through a tunnel and attacked an Israeli army patrol, killing two soldiers and injuring two. The army returned fire, killing one militant and forcing the rest back through the tunnel into the Palestinian territory.

Hamas attacked other Israeli soldiers with antitank missiles, machine guns, and even an explosives-laden donkey. Militants strapped the donkey with explosives and pushed it in the direction of Israeli soldiers, Israel’s military said, adding that soldiers “engaged the donkey and it exploded at a safe distance” without injuring any troops.

The militants’ resilience seemed to upend the narrative provided by Israel of a Hamas severely weakened by the Israeli ground offensive, airstrikes, artillery barrages and the ongoing destruction of its tunnel network.

amas, military analysts said, is much better prepared militarily than in its two previous conflicts with Israel, in 2009 and 2012. Since then, the Islamist group has invested millions in building large quantities of short- and long-range rockets as well as acquiring other sophisticated weaponry.

Much of Hamas’s ammunition and weaponry has been smuggled in from Iran or Sudan, through tunnels that stretched from Egypt into Gaza, according to Israeli intelligence officials. So were raw materials used by Hamas engineers to assemble sophisticated homemade rockets and other weapons. There are also reports that Hamas has acquired drones.

At the same time, Hamas’s political and economic situation is the worst since the group seized control of Gaza in 2007. It no longer has the support of Iran, Syria or Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia because of its refusal to back President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is an offshoot, is no longer in power and Egypt’s military has destroyed most, if not all, of the tunnels entering Gaza and closed off its border. Much of the Arab world no longer supports the militants, crippling them financially.

“They are really stressed. They have to work very hard to achieve meaningful or strategic developments,” said Kobi Michael, former head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs.

Still, Hamas fights on. In a second attempt Saturday to enter Israel through their tunnels, Hamas militants were found carrying handcuffs and tranquilizers in an apparent attempt to kidnap soldiers, Israel’s military said, adding that the militants were killed. In a third incident, a militant emerged from a concealed tunnel entrance in southern Gaza and began firing at soldiers.

Saturday’s attempted infiltrations into Israel, coming as thousands of Israeli soldiers focus on dismantling the Hamas tunnel network, suggested that the number of tunnels could be far greater than thought. If Hamas continues to use them to kill and injure Israeli soldiers or target civilians in Israel, Israel might widen its ground offensive and push deeper into Gaza.

That could swell the already large number of civilian casualties. The Palestinian death toll from the conflict has risen to more than 400, including scores of children, Gaza officials say. In addition, over 2,200 have been injured.

More than 81,000 Palestinians are seeking refuge in 61 U.N. shelters, more evacuees than in the fighting during the three-week war in 2008-2009, which saw Israeli forces enter Gaza and effectively cut the strip in half. There were more than 1,100 Palestinian deaths in that conflict.

Two Israeli civilians have been killed, in addition to the 18 soldiers.

Large swaths of the coastal enclave, including Gaza City, have lost electricity. Residents worry about their water supply, because they need electrical power to pump water to their rooftop tanks.

Citing its concern about reports of severe shortages of medicines, Israel briefly opened its Erez crossing to allow medical supplies into Gaza.

Yet fighting continued on Sunday. Israeli troops and Gaza militants engaged repeatedly in exchanges of small-arms fire.

Still, as they tangled with Israeli troops on the ground, Hamas and other militant factions have continued to fire a steady barrage of rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel.

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