John Kerry, US secretary of state, is expected to travel to Egypt on Monday in an effort to restore a 2012 ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, a day after the most intense fighting yet in the near two-week war claimed the lives of at least 60 Palestinians, many of them civilians in Gaza.
Israel stepped up its ground war against Islamic militants Hamas, expanding from a limited operation targeting tunnel networks on the border to an assault on urban areas inside Gaza, as it shelled the al-Shuja’iya neighbourhood in the east of Gaza City on Sunday. The shelling of buildings left many dead or wounded.
Hamas fighters fired back, engaging Israeli troops with rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire. Journalists at the scene reported seeing dead and wounded in the streets, some of whom could not be treated because of the intensity of the fighting.
The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting and urged an immediate ceasefire after Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general, described Israel’s shelling as “atrocious”.
Israel’s military said that 13 members of its elite Golani infantry brigade had been killed in Sunday’s offensive.
Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, said on Monday Israel would take the offensive “one day at a time” as it seeks to stop Hamas firing rockets across the border.
“We have to deal with the rockets and the rocket launchers,” he told the BBC. “Hamas must realise there’s a price for carrying out these attacks.”
Jen Psaki, US state department spokeswoman, said in a statement that the US and its international partners “are deeply concerned about the risk of further escalation, and the loss of more innocent life. We believe there should be a ceasefire as soon as possible – one that restores the ceasefire reached in November of 2012.”
Israel agreed to a two-hour humanitarian ceasefire to allow medical personnel to attend to people injured in the fighting from 1:30pm on Sunday, which it later extended by two hours.
The pro-Hamas al-Aqsa and al-Quds television channels carried distressing footage of the dead and wounded lying in the streets, many of them children. Palestinian health officials put the number of the day’s casualties across the Gaza Strip as of Sunday afternoon at more than 80 dead and 210 wounded, but ambulances were still arriving at Gaza City’s al-Shifa hospital and the numbers rose as the day progressed.
Barack Obama, the US president, expressed concern over the rising casualties on both sides in a telephone call with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli premier, on Sunday. Earlier, Mr Kerry had urged Hamas to “recognise their own responsibility” and accept a ceasefire deal to halt what he called an “ugly” war.
The UN said thousands more people had fled their homes to seek refuge in schools or other shelters because of the fighting. UNRWA, its Palestinian refugee agency, said it was running short of funds to buy mattresses and latrines.
“We have seen another massive increase in displacement from Shuja’iya, but also in the east,” said Bob Turner, head of UNRWA’s Gaza field office. The UN said it was sheltering 70,000 displaced people at 57 schools and that it was running out of suitable buildings in north Gaza, where most of the fighting is focused.
Rights campaigners and aid agencies warned of a worsening shortage of drinking water and a sanitation crisis. Much of Gaza lacks electricity because power lines were damaged during the Israeli military operation that began on July 7. Municipal workers have been unable to repair facilities.
Israel’s military dropped leaflets and sent voice and text messages to residents of Shuja’iya last week urging them to evacuate. Many remained either because Hamas told them not to leave their homes or because previously such warnings had not been followed by military action.
As images of the wounded and dead, and the destruction of buildings, in Shuja’iya were published on news and social media sites on Sunday, the IDF said in its Twitter feed: “Days ago we warned civilians in Shuja’iya to evacuate. Hamas ordered them to stay. Hamas put them in the line of fire.”
The Israeli military, which accuses Hamas of using homes and other civilian buildings to shield its military operations, also published a drawing showing a rocket launcher on top of a civilian building, and militant fighters and rockets in tunnels underneath a mosque.
“I call on Gazans to heed the IDF’s warnings and leave for safe areas,” Mr Netanyahu said on Sunday in an interview on BBC’s Arabic service. “Hamas wants you to die – you shouldn’t die for Hamas.”
Mr Netanyahu has broad political and public support in Israel for his decision to launch a land war in Gaza. Naftali Bennett, Israel’s far-right economy minister, said he did not rule out “the goal of toppling the Hamas regime”.
Efforts to secure a ceasefire have so far been unsuccessful because of Hamas’s refusal to stop fighting before it secures a list of demands, including a lifting of Israeli and Egyptian restrictions on its borders and the release of Palestinian prisoners arrested by Israel since three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in late June and later killed.
Additional reporting by Simeon Kerr in Dubai