JERUSALEM -- Israeli forces expanded their offensive against Islamist militants deeper into the Gaza Strip on Sunday, triggering clashes in which 13 soldiers died and more than 60 people were killed in the shelling of a densely populated neighborhood of Gaza City, the army and local health officials said.
It was the deadliest day of fighting since Israel began its campaign against the militant group Hamas and allied factions on July 8. The Israeli losses were the highest in one day since a 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
In a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Barack Obama “raised serious concern about the growing number of casualties, including increasing Palestinian civilian deaths in Gaza and the loss of Israeli soldiers,” the White House said in a statement.
Obama told Netanyahu he would be dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry to Cairo “soon….to seek an immediate cessation of hostilities based on a return to the November 2012 ceasefire agreement” that ended a previous Israeli offensive in Gaza, the statement said.
The State Department said Kerry would depart on Monday for Egypt, which has offered a ceasefire plan to end the fighting.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the deaths in the Shuja’iya neighborhood of Gaza City a “massacre,” and called for international intervention to impose a ceasefire.
More than 430 Palestinians have been killed and about 3,000 wounded, according to Gaza health officials, since the start of the Israeli campaign, which began with ten days of bombardments from land, sea and air, followed by a ground offensive launched on Thursday.
The UN said that about 70 percent of the dead were civilians, at least 77 of them children. The army said that it had killed 110 militants in ground operations.
Two Israeli civilians have died in rocket strikes from the Gaza Strip, and 18 soldiers have been killed in action during the campaign, which Israel says was launched to quell cross-border rocket fire by Palestinian militants.
Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu has said the ground push was meant to uncover and destroy tunnels dug by Hamas, some extending under the border into Israel.
After initially occupying sparsely populated areas up to two miles from the border, the army expanded its operations toward built-up neighborhoods of Gaza City on Sunday.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an army spokesman, said that troops moving toward Shuj’aiya had called in artillery and air strikes when they encountered “intense resistance” from Hamas gunmen firing machine guns, mortars, rocket propelled grenades and anti-tank missiles from houses in the neighborhood.
Lerner described Shuja’iya as a “Hamas stronghold” from which scores of rockets had been fired at Israel during the current fighting. He said that Israeli forces were sent there to uncover a network of tunnels dug by Hamas and to halt rocket launchings from the area, where 100,000 people live.
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said that Shuja’iya was shelled during attempts to extricate soldiers killed and wounded in the fighting. “To our regret, this is the result of a reality in which Hamas and other terror organizations hide behind their population, which serves as a human shield,” he said.
Residents reported heavy bombardment through the night, with houses shaking from the impacts. Television images from the neighborhood showed bodies strewn in the streets and a stream of panicked residents fleeing areas under attack.
Thousands of residents of Shuja’iya left their homes, and some sought shelter in Al-Shifa Hospital in the city center. A stream of casualties arrived in ambulances and cars, and photos from the hospital showed distraught men carrying the limp bodies of at least two children. The shrouded corpses of three other dead children lay in a morgue, where relatives wept as they identified victims.
The hospital director, Naser Tattar, said that 17 children, 14 women and four elderly people were among the dead. He said about 400 people were wounded.
Plumes of smoke rose from the bombarded area, where houses over several blocks were badly damaged or destroyed. During a pause in the fighting requested by the Red Cross, rescue crews retrieved bodies and searched for wounded among the rubble of collapsed homes. One badly injured woman was pulled out, but another could not be rescued, the Associated Press reported.
“I’m here with my husband and niece,” the woman said, according to the AP report. “I am under the shop….God help, I can’t breathe.” Rescue workers said the area was dangerous and that they would not be able to dig her out in time.
In recent days the Israeli army had called on residents of Shuja’iya and adjacent areas to leave their homes, but many stayed put, saying that nowhere in the Gaza Strip was safe.
Yaalon said that troops had found a “subterranean city of terror tunnels” dug towards Israel under the neighborhood, which is near the Gaza Strip’s eastern border. Since the start of the ground operation in Gaza, 14 such tunnel networks had been found, he said.
The offensive against Hamas has triggered heavy rocket-firing from Gaza at Israel, with rockets reaching the area of Tel Aviv and the northern port city of Haifa, 100 miles away, sending Israelis across the country to safe-rooms and shelters.
Many of the incoming rockets have landed in open areas, while others have been intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians, many urged to evacuate by Israeli army leaflets and phone warnings, have fled their homes to escape the fighting in Gaza. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees, said that more than 81,000 people had sought refuge in 61 shelters provided by the agency, many of them schools.
Efforts to arrange a ceasefire continued on Sunday, with Palestinian Authority’s Abbas meeting in Qatar with Khaled Mashal, the political leader of Hamas.
UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon was also in Qatar to meet Abbas, and he was scheduled to travel Monday to Egypt to meet President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, before going on to the West Bank and Israel.
At a news conference in Doha, Ban condemned the deaths in Shuja’iya as an “atrocious action.”
“Israel must exercise maximum restraint and do far more to protect civilians,” he said, adding that all sides to the conflict “must respect international humanitarian law.”
Hamas has rejected the ceasefire proposal by Egypt, saying it was not consulted about its terms. The plan calls for a halt in fighting followed by truce negotiations, but Hamas says it wanted it demands addressed first, primarily the easing of border closures imposed on Gaza by Egypt and Israel.
Hamas is wary of mediation by Egypt, and has sought to involve Qatar and Turkey in the ceasefire discussions. Al-Sisi is hostile to the group and ousted its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, from power.
Mohamed Salman contributed from Doha, Qatar. White House correspondents Lesley Clark and Anita Kumar contributed from Washington.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.