GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli forces
killed 10 Palestinian militants who slipped across the border from Gaza
through hidden tunnels on Monday, the military said, as the death toll
from the two-week conflict passed 500 amid growing international calls
for an end.
Defying a U.N. Security Council appeal for an immediate ceasefire,
Israeli jets, tanks and artillery continued to pound the Gaza Strip,
killing 28 members of a single family near the enclave's southern
border with Egypt, medics said.
The Islamist group Hamas and its allies fired multiple missiles
across southern and central Israel, and heavy fighting was reported
in the north and east of Gaza.
Non-stop attacks lifted the Palestinian death toll to 496, including
almost 100 children, since fighting started on July 8, Gaza health
officials said. Israel says 18 of its soldiers have also died along
with two civilians.
Despite worldwide calls for a cessation of the worst bout of
Palestinian-Israeli violence for more than five years, Israeli
ministers ruled out any swift truce.
"This is not the time to talk of a ceasefire," said Gilad Erdan,
communications minister and a member of Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu's inner security cabinet.
"We must complete the mission, and the mission cannot end until the
threat of the tunnels is removed," he told reporters.
For its part, Hamas, weakened by the loss of Egypt and Syria as
allies, voiced determination to fight on to break Israel's economic
siege of Gaza.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was due to fly to Egypt later in
the day as part of a gathering effort to halt the bloodshed, and
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is touring the Middle East trying
to secure a ceasefire.
Past flare-ups between Israel and its foes in Gaza and Lebanon have
usually ended when the United States, the Jewish state's guardian
ally, calls a halt, sometimes hastened by a strike that inflicts
high civilian casualties on the Arab side.
While Washington went along with Sunday's Security Council
statement, it has so far defended Israeli actions and refrained from
pressuring Netanyahu publicly to stop.
Violence along the Gaza border intensified on Monday and sirens
wailed across much of central and southern Israel to warn of rocket
attacks. At least nine missiles were shot down by Israel's Iron Dome
interceptor, the army said.
Looking to take the fight onto Israeli soil, two groups of
Palestinian fighters crossed from Gaza via two tunnels in the early
morning, opening fire as they entered.
Black and white surveillance footage supplied by the army, showed
one group of five or six men crouching and firing in long grass.
Seconds later they were hit by a large explosion, which sent a cloud
of smoke and debris flying into the air.
A military spokeswoman said at least 10 militants died. She did not
comment on reports of casualties amongst Israeli forces. Hamas said
its men had destroyed an army jeep in the assault. Fighters from
Hamas, which controls Gaza, and its allies, have repeatedly tried to
infiltrate Israel over the past week through a vast network of
hidden tunnels, looking to attack villages and army encampments that
dot the border area.
Netanyahu sent in Israeli ground forces on Thursday to destroy the
tunnels and the militants' missile stock pile.
Hamas announced late on Sunday its fighters had captured an Israeli
soldier during fighting, setting off celebrations around Gaza. It
named the man as Shaul Aron and showed his ID papers, but did not
release any picture of him alive in their hands.
Israel's ambassador to the United Nations denied the claim, and the
Israel's military said it was still investigating.
"We still cannot rule it out," military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel
Peter Lerner said on Monday.
A confident-sounding Hamas told Israel to quit Gaza.
"Israel has terribly failed and we advise them to take their
soldiers and leave before we kidnap more soldiers in addition to the
scores we have already killed and wounded," said the group's
spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri.
Any capture of an Israeli soldier would
pile pressure on Netanyahu to intensify the military campaign.
He agreed to free more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in 2011 to
secure the release of a soldier who was held for more than five
years by Gaza, and officials have said they want to avoid any repeat
of that prolonged drama.
Lerner told reporters that the main focus of fighting remained the
Shejaia district, east of Gaza City, where some 72 Palestinians,
many of them civilians, were killed on Sunday.
In its push against militants in Shejaia, Israel also suffered its
worst losses in the offensive, with 13 soldiers killed - the army's
heaviest one-day loss in battle since 2006.
The high death toll by Israeli standards appeared to cement a public
mood of grim determination. Many flags flew at half mast but no
leading figures are calling into question the operation. "We need to
continue to grit our teeth, to shut our ears, to ignore the
background noise and to get the job done," columnist Ben Caspit
wrote in Ma'ariv. Israel's army said it had been targeting militants
in the clashes, charging that they had fired rockets from Shejaia
and built tunnels and command centers there. The army said it had
warned civilians to leave two days earlier.
Sounds of explosions rocked Gaza City through the morning, with
residents reporting heavy fighting in Shejaia and the adjacent
Zeitoun neighborhood. Locals also said there was heavy shelling in
Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip.
"It seems we are heading towards a massacre in Beit Hanoun. They
drove us out of our houses with their fire. We carried our kids and
ran away," said Abu Ahmed, he did not want to give his full name for
fear of Israeli reprisals.
"It was a night of horror," the 50 year-old told Reuters.
At the other end of Gaza, medics said 28 members of the Abu Jamea
family died when their house was hit by a bomb. Nearby, 10 members
of the Seyam family died when they were hit by a tank shell as they
tried to flee their house, officials said. Kerry said on Sunday he
supported Israel's efforts to destroy the Hamas tunnel network, but
Washington has also said it is worried by the prospect of a further
Lerner said that since start of Israeli ground operations, the army
had uncovered 43 access points to 16 different tunnels.
(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Noah Browning
in Gaza and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by
Crispian Balmer and Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by John Stonestreet
and Paul Taylor)