Palestinian mourners gather around the bodies of three siblings of the Abu Musallam family, during their funeral in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, Friday. Photo: AP
Nine members of a single family, including four children, were buried in the northern Gaza Strip on Saturday, killed by an Israeli artillery shell that hit their home Friday night, as artillery and small arms fire echoed nearby from clashes between Hamas militants and Israeli forces, reports The New York Times.
Israeli soldiers have taken control of the exit points of 13 separate tunnels into Israel from Gaza and are engaged in “urban warfare” inside the strip, along the boundary with Israel, while working to destroy the tunnels, said Lt Col Peter Lerner, a military spokesman. Hamas militants were fighting back with antitank missiles, small-arms fire and grenades, and in one case, he said, even strapped explosives to a donkey.
Hamas media reported Saturday morning that the group’s fighters had “crossed enemy lines” into Israel, presumably through one of the many tunnels that the Israeli military says are the targets of its incursion that began Thursday night, and were exchanging heavy fire with Israeli forces.
There was no immediate confirmation from Israeli authorities, though the government warned people in the Eshkol region bordering Gaza to keep their distance from artillery fire.
The Palestinian death toll in Gaza rose to 301 in Gaza since July 8, including 72 children, 24 women and 18 elderly people, with more than 2,000 wounded, the Palestinian health ministry said. About 75 percent of the casualties have been civilians, according to a United Nations count.
Hamas has fired more than 1,000 rockets into Israel during the same period. With many rockets intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system and Israelis heeding sirens and taking cover, just one Israeli civilian has been killed, near the Gaza border, by a mortar shell.
As the funeral procession for the Abu Jarad family wound through the streets of Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza, men took turns carrying the bodies of an infant and a toddler, wrapped in bloody white shrouds, the baby’s exposed face marked with blood. Adults’ bodies were wrapped in the yellow flags of Hamas’s rival party, Fatah.
At the cemetery, small-arms fire and artillery echoed close by during the prayers and smoke rose in the distance. Hamas rockets whooshed into the sky from a launch site not far away, an attack likely to draw return fire to the residential area. Many mourners trickled away before the end of the ceremony because of the danger.
The dead included three women, two men and four children killed when an artillery round hit their house in Beit Hanoun, in northeastern Gaza, during heavy shelling. Four were killed instantly and five more died overnight, making the family the latest of many here to suffer mass casualties in a single strike.
In Khan Younis, in central Gaza, seven people were killed, mostly men, and others were wounded when a drone struck a group of people in the middle of the city, the health ministry said.
The number of Palestinians who have left their homes for official United Nations shelters reached 50,000, according to a U.N. spokesman. But the true number of those who have fled was likely much higher, as most have taken refuge with friends and family.
The Israeli military planned to distribute more leaflets Saturday advising residents of Khan Younis, the nearby coastal area of Marasi and Al Burej to evacuate, Colonel Lerner said. He said the military was working with international organizations to help them find safe harbor, but he acknowledged that there were not enough places to go.
“The alternative is that they stay put and that is more dangerous to them and that’s why we advise them to leave the area and take refuge, at least temporarily,” Colonel Lerner said. “We are directing them toward safer zones, safer areas, away from the areas where we plan to operate.”
But many Gaza residents say they are unsure where to go, since fighter jets and drones may strike anywhere. Israel blames Hamas for operating in residential areas, and has urged Palestinians to move away from the group’s personnel and rocket launch sites and to pressure Hamas not to use their neighborhoods. Civilians here say they have little sway over armed Hamas militants and do not always know that they are operating nearby until it is too late.
Colonel Lerner said Saturday morning that Israeli troops had uncovered 13 distinct tunnels from Gaza into Israeli territory since the ground offensive began, some of them as much as 30 yards underground, and multiple entry points beneath greenhouses and open fields. He said the tunnels were all over the periphery of Gaza and that he believed there were “tens” more. He would not say how long the tunnels were or which locations inside Israel they led to.
“We have control over all of them, we’re in the process of demolishing them,” Colonel Lerner said.
Colonel Lerner said that Palestinian militants had built the extensive tunnel network over the past two years, and that Israeli intelligence had been studying them with a special task force for a year to prepare for such an operation.
“It is a substantive, strategic plan of extensive tunnels in order to infiltrate into the state of Israel,” he said. “They shifted all of their assets, all of their infrastructure, all of their defensive capabilities, into these offensive capabilities in order to have some element of surprise.”
As the engineer corps works to destroy the tunnels with heavy machinery, other troops have taken up defensive positions around them.
In Beit Lahiya overnight, he said, Israeli forces entered a house and a man inside opened fire; he was killed and three soldiers were wounded. Troops also found a militant inside a tunnel and killed him. In a separate incident, a man seeking medical assistance pulled out hand grenades and was killed by soldiers.
Since July 8, Israel has struck 2,350 targets, including 1,100 rocket launchers, Colonel Lerner said.