Dozens of Israeli tanks and bulldozers backed by missile-firing drone aircraft pushed into the northern Gaza Strip on Wednesday, touching off a daylong battle that killed 23 Palestinians and wounded at least 70.
At least half of the Palestinian dead were fighters from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and other groups. But Palestinian medical sources said that at least three children were killed, including two sisters.
Throughout the day, in neighborhoods along the shifting urban front line, masked Palestinian fighters rushed toward the confrontation, many carrying grenade launchers and spools of wire for laying booby traps in the path of oncoming tanks. A large crowd of boys gathered to watch them, seemingly oblivious to the danger. In one case, a group of children helped hide the wiring of an explosive device.
Screaming ambulances rushed through the streets of Gaza City, and militant groups held emotional funeral marches, ferrying slain fighters to the cemetery for rapid burial according to Islamic custom.
The deaths pushed the toll to about 140 in fighting that began June 25, when militants from the Gaza Strip crossed into Israel, killing two Israeli soldiers and capturing a third. Wednesday’s death toll was the highest in the last two weeks. Last week, Israeli tanks drove to the heart of the Maghazi refugee camp in a two-day incursion that left at least 15 Palestinians dead.
The clashes took place as global attention and diplomatic efforts largely were focused on Lebanon, where at least nine Israeli soldiers were killed Wednesday in battles with Hezbollah.
The day’s violence ended talk of a cease-fire.
“There’s no talk at all about a truce anymore,” said Abu Ahmed, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad. “No way.”
Another Islamic Jihad political leader, Khader Habib, pledged to take the fight deep into Israel. He called on militants to “carry out martyrdom operations in the heart of Israeli cities.” He said they would spare civilians as much as possible and focus on military targets.
The Israeli army said the operation, dubbed Samson’s Pillars, was meant to “stop the launching of rockets into Israel and destroy terror infrastructure in the area.” In a statement, it said Wednesday’s incursion targeted orchards used as sites for launching rockets at the nearby Israeli city of Ashkelon, and at several buildings used as weapons factories or rocket warehouses.
Palestinian militants fired 11 Kassam rockets Wednesday into Israel, an army spokesman said. One of the rockets hit the industrial zone of the nearby city of Sderot, injuring one person and damaging a building.
The Israeli army said it would continue to “act with determination and employ all means at its disposal” to end the rocket attacks and rescue the captured soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
The Israel Defense Forces’ tanks and bulldozers held positions overnight in the orchards bordering the Shaaf district, northeast of Gaza City.
The sudden escalation in Gaza could indicate a rising Israeli frustration with the daily rocket attacks launched by Palestinian militants and possibly with the continuing fighting farther to the north, commentators said.
“The Palestinians in Gaza are ... suffering the IDF’s wrath at Hezbollah,” wrote Zeev Schiff in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
The severity of the Israeli attack Wednesday, which used about 50 tanks and bulldozers, surprised some militant leaders, whose weaponry is primitive compared with the rockets Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon are firing at northern Israel.
“We launch them and the rest is up to God,” said Abu Mujahid, a spokesman for the Popular Revolutionary Committees, a Palestinian militant group. “Sometimes they hit something. Sometimes they go backward.”
Dozens of masked Palestinian fighters lined the streets of the Jabal Hassanein district in Shaaf, a suburb of Gaza City. Israeli tanks, they said, were just out of sight, perhaps one-third of a mile away.
Amid the steady thump of shells and the buzz of unseen drones overhead, the mood among the fighters was businesslike, almost routine. The masked men casually carried grenade launchers, bell-shaped explosive charges and spools of black wire through the streets. And they waited.
A trio of cell leaders directed the action through hand signals and by walkie-talkies.
“If they come from this direction, we’ll lay them over here,” a leader told one of his men.
Amid the preparations, a large crowd of young boys mingled and chatted, lingering in the shade. Asked why they weren’t hiding, a teenager in a Yankees cap shrugged as if he didn’t quite understand the question.
“We’re not scared,” he said. “We’re used to the idea of death.”
But the tension level rose as a new sound cut through the buzz of drones, a high-pitched whine that all recognized as an Israeli tank, very close and in motion.
Activity among the fighters increased. One of the cell leaders, a slightly chubby young man in a gray shirt and a black stocking mask with crooked eye and mouth holes, rousted the idling youth, barking: “Get out of here before they fire a rocket.”
He then snapped a word to a group of children, who began tending to one of the explosive wires, laying it flush against a building, pinning it down with rocks and kicking dirt over it.
Footage on Al Jazeera TV showed bloodied bodies being unloaded from ambulances, including that of Palestinian state TV cameraman Ibrahim Atla, who suffered shrapnel wounds to the chest. He was listed in serious condition.
Ambulances crisscrossed the city throughout the day, sirens wailing, back and forth between the front lines and Gaza City’s Shifa hospital.
Many of the dead were overmatched militant fighters, who attempted to take on Israeli tanks with armor-piercing rockets or assault rifles. But there were reports of civilian casualties. Medical sources said sisters Maria Okal, 8, and Shahed, 8 months, were killed when their home in Gaza City’s Jabaliya district was hit by a shell. Several other family members were wounded, the sources said
By midafternoon, militant groups had begun to bury their dead. About 1,000 people joined a funeral procession for two Islamic Jihad fighters, wrapped in the group’s banners and carried overhead on makeshift planks down the center of Shaaf Street.