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Israel warns of wider Gaza assault as Palestinian toll hits 278

July 18, 2014 9:02 P.M. (Updated: July 19, 2014 11:38 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (AFP) -- Israel warned Friday it could broaden a Gaza ground assault aimed at smashing Hamas's network of cross-border tunnels, as it intensified an operation that has so far killed 278 Palestinians and injured more than 2,000.

With diplomatic efforts to secure a ceasefire gathering pace, US President Barack Obama said he had telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to voice concerns about the crisis.

And Abbas reached out for French help to lobby Hamas allies Qatar and Turkey to pressure the group into accepting a truce during talks in Cairo with Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

In the face of Israel's land, sea and air offensive that has sent terrified civilians running for cover, Hamas remained defiant and warned Israel it would "drown in the swamp of Gaza."

As Gaza residents spoke of a night of terror, with gun battles in the south and all-night shelling in the north, Netanyahu said he had ordered the military to ready for "the possibility of a significant broadening of the ground activity."

Immediately afterwards, he convened his security cabinet to discuss plans for a possible expansion of the campaign, which began on July 8 with the aim of stamping out cross-border rocket fire that intensified in late June and early July as Israeli forces launched a massive campaign against Hamas in the West Bank that led to around 10 deaths, 130 injuries, and more than 600 arrests.

Fleeing westwards

The ground operation, which began in the Gaza periphery at around 10 p.m. on Thursday, sent thousands of people fleeing west to escape the fighting, with a UN agency saying the numbers of displaced had almost doubled overnight.

"The number of people coming to UNRWA seeking sanctuary from the fighting in Gaza has nearly doubled today. It has risen from 22,000 to over 40,000," said Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, saying they were staying in 34 of the agency's schools.

By mid-morning Friday, the road between Gaza City and Khan Yunis was deserted with only a single minibus, packed with passengers, careering south, its windows covered with makeshift white flags, an AFP correspondent said.

During Friday prayers, imams at Gaza's 1,400 mosques relayed a single message to the faithful: "Be patient and strong, victory will come."

But it was little comfort for those on the ground with hospitals overwhelmed by a flood of patients.

"The situation is very, very difficult," said doctor Kamel Zaqzuq at Nasser hospital in Khan Yunis

"This is much, much more difficult than the last war," he said, referring to the previous major conflict between Israel and Hamas militants in November 2012.

"At night, it's one constant emergency."

With food supplies running desperately low, the World Food Program said it had already distributed emergency food rations and food vouchers to more than 20,000 displaced people since the conflict erupted on July 8.

But with the ground operation, it was gearing up for a huge increase in the coming days, spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs told reporters in Geneva.

"In the next few days, WFP hopes to reach 85,000 people with food distributions," she said.

Gaza was also struggling with a 70 percent power outage after electricity lines from Israel were damaged, officials said.

Tunnel vision

Since midnight, 33 people have been killed across Gaza by Israeli fire, including three teenagers and a five-month-old baby, raising to 274 the total number of Palestinians killed in the past 11 days.

An Israeli civilian and a soldier have also been killed.

Israel has said the aim of the ground operation is to destroy Hamas's network of tunnels which are used for cross-border attacks on southern Israel.

"It is not possible to deal with tunnels only from the air, so our soldiers are also doing that on the ground," Netanyahu said, although he admitted there was "no guarantee of 100 percent success."

Obama told reporters in Washington that while the US supports Israel's right to defend itself, "the United States and our friends and allies are deeply concerned about the risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life."

He added that Washington was "hopeful that Israel will continue to approach this process (of destroying tunnels) in a way that minimizes civilian casualties."

Israel pulled out all of its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but within a year it became the de facto seat of Hamas after it won a landslide victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections.

Meanwhile, Abbas arrived in Turkey where he urged support for an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire proposal.

Shortly before his arrival, Israel said it was pulling out some of its diplomatic staff following violent protests targeting the buildings of its embassy and consulate in Ankara and Istanbul.

Ma'an staff contributed to this report.
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