Heavy fighting in Gaza as death toll rises above 500

Fierce fighting between Israeli troops and Hamas militants continued near Gaza City on Monday as the death toll from the conflict rose above 500.

Heavy bombardment hit areas east of the city, particularly the neighborhood of Shaja'ia, where a large Israeli assault Sunday contributed to the deadliest day of the war so far.

As clashes escalated over the weekend, Hamas said it had captured an Israeli soldier — a claim an Israeli diplomat later disputed.

With no sign of either side backing down in a conflict in which most of the victims have been civilians, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due to arrive in Egypt on Monday to push for a cease-fire.

Speaking to CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday Kerry said that the United States supports Egypt's initiative for a truce and "will work for a fair cease-fire."

The United States has "shown our willingness to try to deal with the underlying issues," but Hamas "must step up and show a level of reasonableness," he said.

"No country, no human being, is comfortable with children being killed, with people being killed, but we're not comfortable with Israeli soldiers being killed either or with people being rocketed in Israel," Kerry said.

Kerry's hot mic moment

However, Kerry also appeared to let slip some frustration with Israeli authorities in comments caught on an open microphone in between television interviews.

After one his deputies mentioned the latest number of Palestinian casualties, Kerry was heard to say, "It's a hell of a pinpoint operation."

In a meeting late Sunday, U.N. Security Council members expressed "serious concern about the growing number of casualties," according to the body's president, Ambassador Eugene-Richard Gasana of Rwanda.
Map of the Middle EastMap of the Middle East

The members urged "an immediate cessation of hostilities" based on the cease-fire that stopped the 2012 conflict between Israel and Hamas, he said.

But as clashes continued Monday, there was no sign that either side would heed the world body's calls.

Gaza toll passes 500

The death toll climbed sharply after Israel's thunderous assault Sunday on Shaja'ia , which sent hundreds of panic-stricken people fleeing into Gaza City.

Scores of Palestinians were killed during heavy shelling of Shaja'ia, bringing the total number killed since the start of Israel's military operations against Hamas to 507, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. More than 3,000 have been wounded.

Extensive fighting continued in Shaja'ia overnight into Monday, the Israeli military said.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, speaking to Al-Jazeera, said that Israel committed "a crime against humanity," and that most of those killed in Shaja'ia were women and children.

The Israeli military said it had warned residents days in advance to leave Shaja'ia, which it described as a key area that Hamas uses to launch rockets into Israel. It accused Hamas of ordering people to stay in the area.

Israel mourns soldiers

Israel said 13 soldiers were killed Sunday, bringing the total killed during the Gaza conflict to 18, in addition to two civilians. At a news conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed the country's "deep pain" at the loss of the soldiers.

Hamas claimed responsibility for their deaths, calling it a "heroic operation."

Among those killed were Max Steinberg, a California native, and Sean Carmeli, an IDF soldier from South Padre Island, Texas, the U.S. State Department said.

"We're doing everything we can not to harm the people of Gaza," Netanyahu said. "Hamas is doing everything they can to make sure the people of Gaza suffer."

'Nobody is safe'

But people in Gaza who spoke with CNN described a different situation.

"Nobody is safe and nobody can flee anywhere because everywhere is targeted," said Enas Sisisalem, a mother of two who lives in the al-Remal neighborhood of Gaza City. "When we hear the shelling my kids will cry."

She said she had seen people running away from Shaja'ia.

"The shelling did not stop all night or morning," Sisisalem said Sunday. "The people ran away from their houses with their clothes and kids only, barely grabbing anything with them."

The United Nations has estimated that around 70% of the Palestinian killed in Gaza have been civilians.

More than 100,000 people in Gaza have been displaced by the conflict, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Over 83,000 of them are staying in U.N. schools, an increase of more than 400% in a matter of days, according to Chris Gunness, spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.

Israeli official denies soldier captured

Hamas' military wing said Sunday it had captured an Israeli soldier during an early morning operation. But Ron Prosor, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, later denied the claim.

"There's no kidnapped Israeli soldier, and those rumors are untrue," he told reporters late Sunday at the United Nations in New York.

But Israel Defense Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said Monday that the military was still looking into the matter and that clarification should come later in the day.

Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Hamas' military wing, had earlier provided the supposed soldier's name and ID, saying, "He is a prisoner, and if Zionists lie about the dead and wounded, then the fate of this soldier is their responsibility."

Gunfire and cheers erupted in Gaza on Sunday in apparent celebration of the alleged capture of the soldier, according to CNN reporters on the ground.

Hamas' claims stirred memories of militants' abduction of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006. He was released some five years later in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Israeli operation expands

Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in Gaza two weeks ago, saying its aim was to weaken Hamas and stop the barrages of rockets the militant group has been firing into Israel.

The operation began with more than a week of aerial bombardments. But after Hamas fighters used a tunnel dug under the border to attempt another line of attack, Netanyahu ordered the start of a ground offensive into Gaza, sending tanks and infantry into the territory.

Having originally billed the incursion as a targeted operation against Hamas' network of tunnels, the IDF said Sunday it was expanding the offensive.

It said the goal is "to strike a significant blow to Hamas' terror capabilities and to restore security and stability to Israel's residents and citizens."

Israel is still "early on in the mission," the IDF's Lerner said Sunday. "You can't erase 10,000 rockets overnight," he said of Hamas' estimated arsenal.

New tunnel attack

The IDF said it killed more than 10 militants who tried in two separate groups to get into southern Israel through tunnels on Monday.

Hamas' military wing said the infiltration attempt was ongoing, claiming its fighters had killed Israeli soldiers.

Efforts to bring an end to the fighting have so far come to nothing.

Israel accepted an Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire last week. But Hamas rejected it, saying it hadn't been consulted and wanted a broader range of issues to be addressed, including prisoner releases and Israel's restrictions on the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza.

Subsequent talks involving Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, the United States and others have failed to yield any breakthroughs.

Tags: