Israeli forces expanded their offensive deeper into theGaza Strip on Sunday, heavily shelling a densely populatedneighborhood of Gaza City and killing at least 50 people, localmedical officials said.
Palestinians called the shelling of Shuja'iya, and adjacent areas inthe eastern part of Gaza City, a "massacre." Television images from theneighborhood showed bodies strewn in the streets and a stream ofpanicked residents fleeing areas under attack.
The Israeli army, which in recent days warned local residents toleave, said troops advancing toward the neighborhood had called inartillery support after meeting stiff resistance from Palestiniangunmen fighting from houses.
The episode, in which more than 200 people were reportedly injured,appeared to be the deadliest since Israel launched its offensive inGaza on July 8 against the militant Islamist group Hamas.
After hours of artillery shelling, the Israeli army agreed to arequest by the Red Cross for a two-hour pause in the bombardment toallow evacuation of the wounded and recovery of bodies.
However, an Israeli army spokesman said that Hamas had violated theceasefire and that Israeli forces were "responding accordingly." Hesaid the military had called on residents to evacuate the area towardthe center of Gaza City.
Many residents fleeing Shuja'iya sought shelter in Al-Shifa Hospitalin the city center, Palestinians reported. Images from the hospitalshowed distraught men carrying bodies of two dead children.
Plumes of smoke rose from the bombarded area, and reports from thescene said that ambulance crews were unable to get in to look for deadand wounded feared trapped under the rubble of collapsed houses.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that the aim of theIsraeli military campaign is to bring an extended halt to rocket fireat Israel by Gaza militants and to strike a heavy blow against Hamas.
But the offensive has triggered heavy rocket-firing from Gaza atIsrael, with rockets reaching the area of Tel Aviv and the northernport city of Haifa, 100 miles away, sending Israelis across thecountry to safe-rooms and shelters.
Many of the incoming rockets have landed in open areas, while othershave been intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system.
More than 350 Palestinians have been killed in the Israelibombardments and more than 1,500 wounded, according to local medicalofficials. The United Nations said about 70 percent of the dead werecivilians, at least 77 of them children. The Israeli army says it haskilled about 70 militants in ground operations.
Two Israeli civilians have been killed by rocket attacks from Gaza,and at least five soldiers have died in fighting on the ground.
After 10 days of bombardment from land, sea and air, Israeli troopsand tanks crossed into Gaza on Thursday for what Netanyahu said was amission to uncover and destroy tunnels dug by Hamas, some extendingunder the border into Israel.
After initially occupying sparsely populated areas up to two milesfrom the border, the army expanded its operations toward built-upneighborhoods of Gaza City on Sunday, raising the prospect of increasingcasualties on both sides caused by close-quarters urban warfare. .Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman, said that Israeliforces had been moving toward Shuja'iya, which he called a "Hamasstronghold" from which about 140 rockets had been fired at Israelsince the start of the Israeli offensive.
The forces were "on the way to deal with tunnels they have inShuja'iya and to deal with rocket launching from there," Lerner said."We met extensive resistance from Hamas terrorists shooting at forcesfrom houses in the neighborhood, firing rocket-propelled grenades fromseveral directions. Artillery was fired in support, to address thatchallenge."
Lerner said there were casualties among Israeli troops, but hedeclined to provide details. Military announcements of soldiers killedin action are routinely delayed to allow for notification of theirfamilies.
Four Israeli soldiers were killed on Saturday. Two died when theirjeep was hit by an anti-tank rocket fired by Hamas gunmen who hadtunneled across the border into Israel. A bulldozer driver from acombat engineering unit was killed when his vehicle was hit by ananti-tank rocket, and another soldier died in a firefight withmilitants, the army said.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians, some urged by Israeli armywarnings, have fled their homes to escape the fighting in Gaza. TheUnited Nations Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinianrefugees, said that more than 63,000 people had sought refuge in 55shelters provided by the agency, many of them schools.
"The number has tripled in the last three days, reflecting theintensity of the conflict and the inordinate threats the fighting isposing to civilians," said UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness.
Efforts to negotiate a ceasefire continued on Sunday, withPalestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas due to meet KhaledMashal, the political leader of Hamas, in Qatar.
Hamas has rejected a ceasefire proposal by Egypt, saying it was notconsulted about its terms. The plan called for a halt in fightingfollowed by truce negotiations, but Hamas said it wanted it demandsaddressed first, primarily the easing of border closures imposed onGaza by Egypt and Israel.