July 20, 2014 at 11:08 pm

Scores killed as Gaza ground fight intensifies

Gaza City, Gaza Strip — The first major ground battle in two weeks of Israel-Hamas fighting exacted a steep price Sunday: It killed 65 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers and forced thousands of terrified Palestinian civilians to flee their neighborhood, reportedly used to launch rockets at Israel and now devastated by the fighting.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the offensive would continue “as long as necessary” to end attacks from Gaza on Israeli civilians.

But Hamas seems defiant, international cease-fire efforts are stalled, and international criticism is becoming more vocal as the death toll among Palestinian civilians rises.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon called Israel’s latest incursion “atrocious,” and said it must do far more to protect civilians. The U.N. Security Council was holding an emergency session Sunday night at the request of council member Jordan on the situation in Gaza.

Two Americans who were soldiers for the Israel Defense Force were among those killed.

Stuart Steinberg confirmed the death of his son Max Steinberg, 24, was one of 13 Israeli soldiers who died Sunday. Steinberg, whose family lives in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, was a sharpshooter for the Golani Brigade.

“He was completely dedicated and committed to serving the country of Israel,” Stuart Steinberg said. “He was focused, he was clear in what the mission was, and he was dedicated to the work he needed to be doing.”

Earlier Sunday, the IDF said in a statement that Sgt. Nissim Sean Carmeli, 21, was killed in combat in the Gaza Strip. Carmeli was from South Padre Island, Texas, said Deputy Consul General of Israel to the Southwest Maya Kadosh.

“He had great energy, yet had a kind and gentle soul,” said Rabbi Asher Hecht of Chabad of the Rio Grande Valley, a longtime family friend.

Sunday’s deaths marked the highest number of soldiers killed on a single day since Israel’s war in Lebanon in 2006.

The ferocious battle in Gaza City’s Shijaiyah neighborhood came on the third day of Israel’s ground offensive, which had been preceded by a 10-day air campaign.

In all, at least 432 Palestinians were killed and more than 3,000 wounded in the past two weeks. The overall death toll on the Israeli side rose to 20, including 18 soldiers, along with dozens of wounded troops, during that period.

On Sunday evening, Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri in Gaza claimed his group had captured an Israeli soldier. An announcement on Gaza TV of the soldier’s capture set off celebration in the streets of Gaza City.

But the claim could not immediately be verified, and the Israeli military said it was investigating the report. “There’s no kidnapped Israeli soldier,” Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Ron Prosor, told reporters Sunday night.

Hamas has made similar claims of capturing Israelis in the past that were not true. For Israelis, a captured soldier would be a nightmare scenario. Hamas-allied militants seized an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid in 2006 and held him captive in Gaza until Israel traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, some of whom were involved in grisly killings, for his return in 2011.

Sunday’s battle began when Israeli troops backed by tanks entered the densely populated Shijaiyah district just after midnight Sunday. They were met by a “huge” level of resistance by Hamas fighters who fired anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons from houses and buildings, said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an army spokesman.

Residents said they came under intense Israeli tank fire.

“The gate of hell has opened, and shrapnel came through the windows,” Shijaiyah resident Jawad Hassanain said by phone. He and his family fled to a nearby building after their house shook from explosions.

The 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in several separate incidents in Shijaiya, including gun battles and rocket attacks. In the deadliest, Gaza fighters detonated a bomb near an armored personnel carrier, killing seven soldiers inside, the army said. In another incident, three soldiers were killed when they became trapped in a burning building, it said.

Despite the losses, the army chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, said Israel intends escalate the operation. Gaza residents received automated phone calls late Sunday, warning them to evacuate refugee camps in the center of the Gaza Strip.

Israel had launched the campaign to hurt Hamas’ ability to fire rockets and to destroy tunnels dug by the militants to sneak into Israel to carry out attacks.

Shijaiyah was targeted as a Hamas stronghold and because 8 percent of more than 1,700 rockets fired at Israel since July 8 were launched from there, said Lerner.

The military said that since the beginning of ground operation late last week, it has killed 110 Gaza fighters and targeted more than 1,000 sites linked to militants. Soldiers also exposed 14 tunnels, all interconnected and leading toward Israel, and detonated six of them, including one with a length of 1.2 kilometers and an access point within a house, the army said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sided with Israel and Egypt on Sunday, saying giving in to Hamas’ conditions for a cease-fire would mean rewarding terrorism. Kerry told NBC’s “Meet The Press” he will head to the Middle East in coming days to help with cease-fire efforts. He said Israel “has every right in the world to defend itself” from attacks by Hamas militants in Gaza.

Medics carry a casualty past a burning building in Gaza City on Sunday. More than 430 Palestinians have been killed in the past two weeks. / Lefteris Pitarakis / AP
Israeli soldiers carry the body of a comrade during a funeral Sunday. The ... (Dan Balilty / AP)
Palestinian protesters hold Islamic and Hamas flags shouting slogans ... (Abbas Momani / AFP/Getty Images)