Hamas gunmen who tunneled into Israel killed two soldiers on Saturday and another Israeli died in a rocket strike, while intensified bombardments in the Gaza Strip raised the reported Palestinian death toll there to more than 100 since the start of an Israeli ground offensive on Thursday.
Israeli troops operating up to two miles inside the Gaza Strip uncovered 13 Hamas tunnels, five of them leading to Israel, military officials said. The stated aim of the ground push is to search for and destroy networks of tunnels built by Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza.
But the stepped-up bombardments accompanying the ground incursion, which followed 10 days of air strikes, have led to a sharp increase in Palestinian deaths and raised concerns about a growing humanitarian crisis in the densely populated Gaza Strip.
Israel launched its military campaign there on July 8, saying it was acting to quell rocket fire from the enclave by Islamist militants.
Among those killed in Israeli shelling on Saturday were a couple and their two children, aged 2 and 3, in the town of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, Palestinians reported.
Gaza health officials said that more than 330 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the Israeli campaign, and about 2,500 have been injured. The United Nations said that more than 70 percent of the dead were civilians, of which 73 were children.
The Israeli army said that it had killed 70 militants in skirmishes since the ground operation began.
As the Israeli troops have advanced, tens of thousands of people have fled their homes, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees, said more than 60,000 Gazans had taken refuge in 49 shelters provided by the agency, most of them schools.
“The speed with which this has happened is staggering,” said Robert Turner, director of operations for UNRWA in Gaza. “The number of displaced persons doubled in one day.” Turner said that if the stream of arrivals continues, the agency would run out of basic stocks of mattresses and other vital supplies.
UN agencies reported that damage to water and electricity lines had caused widespread power outages and left 900,000 people without running water. About half of the sewage pumping and wastewater treatment systems in Gaza were no longer functioning, the UN said.
Hospitals struggling to treat a stream of casualties reported shortages of vital supplies and said they were using generators because of disruptions in power supply. A hospital in Beit Hanoun was damaged by shelling, according to local reports.
UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon planned to travel to the region on Saturday to help bring an end to the fighting.
“The Secretary-General is extremely concerned that this escalation will further increase the already appalling death toll among Gazan civilians,” the UN’s under-secretary-general for political affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, told an urgent Security Council session on Friday.
“We condemn the indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza,” he said. “But we are alarmed by Israel’s heavy response.”
Militants in Gaza fired fresh volleys of rockets at Israel on Saturday, killing a man in a Bedouin encampment near Dimona, a town near the site of Israel’s nuclear reactor. Four of the man’s relatives were wounded, including a three-month-old baby who was in serious condition.
The Bedouin, part of Israel’s Arab minority, live in shantytowns scattered across the southern Negev region, and lack early warning systems and shelters that have prevented casualties in Israeli cities and towns.
On Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, a group of heavily armed Hamas militants disguised as Israeli soldiers emerged from a tunnel and fired an anti-tank missile at a passing army jeep, killing two soldiers and wounding four others, the army said.
The military said that troops returned fire, killing one gunman as the rest of the group retreated to the Gaza Strip.
The soldiers’ deaths brought to five the number of Israelis killed since the start of the Gaza campaign.
In another border incident, two militants in Gaza opened fire and launched an anti-tank missile at Israeli troops along the border, causing no casualties, the army said. Soldiers returned fire, killing a militant, and the second died when his explosive belt detonated, according to the military.
Handcuffs and tranquilizers were found on the body of one of the militants, suggesting that their mission was to abduct an Israeli, the army said.
Diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the fighting continued Saturday with no signs of progress.
At a news conference in Cairo with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shukri, said his country had no plans to revise a ceasefire proposal that has been rejected by Hamas.
The plan calls for an end to fighting followed by truce negotiations, but Hamas has insisted that its demands be met first, primarily the lifting of Egyptian and Israeli border restrictions imposed on Gaza, which have throttled the local economy.
The Islamist group wants Egypt to open the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, but Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power and is hostile to its offshoot Hamas, has kept the crossing largely closed since taking power.
On Saturday Egyptian soldiers blocked an aid convoy of Egyptian activists headed to Gaza from reaching the crossing.
Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, who met Friday with Turkish leaders, traveled to Qatar in an effort to get it to prod Hamas into accepting the ceasefire deal. Qatar hosts Hamas’s top political leader, Khaled Mashaal.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.