UN chief heads to Middle East seeking Gaza truce as toll mounts

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Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City's Assabra neighbourhood on July 18, 2014. Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City's Assabra neighbourhood on July 18, 2014.

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United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon heads to the Middle East today to prod efforts to end fighting between Israel and Gaza Strip militants that has pushed the Palestinian death toll past 300 and kept millions of Israelis running for cover from rocket fire.
As Israeli ground troops advanced into Gaza, artillery fire killed eight members of one family and five members of another, the Gaza Health Ministry said in a statement. Soldiers, backed by tanks, heavy artillery, aircraft and warships, moved into the Hamas-controlled enclave on July 17 after 2,100 air strikes over 10 days and Egyptian-led truce efforts failed to quell rocket barrages.
The incursion is the first significant Israeli ground offensive in Gaza since 2009. Israel evacuated the territory in 2005 after 38 years while curbing, along with Egypt, the movement of its people and goods by controlling border crossings.
Ban will travel to the Middle East to consult with regional leaders on the Gaza situation, Jeffrey Feltman, the UN under-secretary-general for political affairs, told reporters in New York yesterday. The UN chief has denounced the rocket fire while calling on Israel to “do far more” to stop civilian casualties.
The 306 Palestinian dead include dozens of children, according to Gaza Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Qedra, and two Israelis have also been killed. The Israeli military said it was looking into the reports of deadly artillery strikes. Most of Israel’s 8 million people are within range of the rockets that continued to fly after the ground assault, with about 1,640 launched since last week, the military said.
Tunnel search
Mohamed al-Fayoomi, a 47-year-old father of eight, said he fled his home in Gaza City early yesterday after artillery shells fell nearby. “I took my wife and children,” he said. “I found hundreds of people had also left their homes in the darkness.”
Beneath the Gaza Strip lies an underground Gaza, an offensive tunnel network that is almost entirely hidden on the surface and as elaborate as a labyrinth” -- Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner
Al-Fayoomi said he went to stay with his sister in a western part of the city. Others have moved to the south, according to The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and more than 40,000 are sheltered in UN facilities in northern and central Gaza. The 140-square-mile (363 square kilometer) territory is about the size of Detroit.
Ground troops poured into the densely populated territory of 1.8 million after Israel reported foiling a raid by 13 Gaza militants who crossed the border through an underground tunnel. Shutting as many tunnels as possible is the declared aim of the ground war.
‘Underground Gaza’
“Beneath the Gaza Strip lies an underground Gaza, an offensive tunnel network that is almost entirely hidden on the surface and as elaborate as a labyrinth,” Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said yesterday in an e-mailed statement. The army “discovered 10 of these tunnels and over 20 points of access” in the first day of the operation, he said.

Israeli army flares illuminate the sky above the Gaza strip on July 18, 2014.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday that he instructed the military to prepare for a “significant expansion” of the ground offensive. Israel called up 48,000 reservists before the invasion, and Channel 2 TV said ministers have authorized the mobilization of 18,000 more.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is meeting with regional leaders in an attempt to end the violence, conferring yesterday in Istanbul with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the day before with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. Abbas, who recently oversaw the formation of a new government backed by his Hamas rivals, has criticized the rocket fire as well as the Israeli strikes.
Border crossing
Feltman, the UN diplomat, said Abbas has indicated he’d be willing to redeploy Palestinian Authority forces along the strip of land between Gaza and Egypt to “enable” the opening of the Rafah border crossing in the event of a cease-fire. “This would be a key component of bringing Gaza back under one legitimate Palestinian government,” Feltman said, according to an e-mailed statement.
Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group rejected Egypt’s truce proposal earlier this week after Israel accepted it, saying it didn’t guarantee lifting the blockade on the coastal enclave. A provision in the proposal said Gaza’s border crossings would be opened for both people and goods “once the security situation becomes stable on the ground.”
The violence flared after youths on both sides of the conflict were kidnapped and killed in recent weeks. The UN has called on Israel to show restraint, and the U.S. has called for a pinpoint strike against the tunnels to limit casualties. The U.S. and European Union label Hamas a terrorist organization..

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