Israel said it widened its ground offensive early Sunday, sending more troops into Gaza after demolishing more than a dozen Hamas tunnels and intensifying tank fire on border areas.
Loud explosions shook Gaza as Israeli flares lit up the night sky and Israeli fighter jets flew low across the densely populated territory.
Since the start of Israel-Hamas fighting almost two weeks ago, 348 Palestinians were killed and 2,700 wounded in Israeli air and artillery strikes, according to Palestinian health officials. One-fourth of the deaths were reported since the start of the ground offensive late Thursday, the officials said.
Five Israelis — three soldiers and two civilians — have also been killed and dozens wounded as rockets continue to rain down on Israel.
As fighting raged, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon headed to Qatar on Sunday as part of renewed cease-fire efforts. Hamas last week rejected an Egyptian call to both sides to halt hostilities, saying it first wants guarantees that Israel and Egypt will significantly ease their border blockade of Gaza.
Hamas has also sought involvement of other countries, such as Qatar, in any cease-fire negotiations, saying Egypt cannot be the sole mediator. The Islamic militant group is deeply distrustful of Egypt’s rulers who last year deposed a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri on Saturday repeated an appeal for the two sides to adopt the cease-fire, saying Egypt’s plan is the only one on the table, despite efforts from Hamas backers Turkey and Qatar to broker a deal.
“It meets the needs of both sides,” he said. “We will continue to propose it. We hope both sides accept it.”
With truce talks stalled, violence has escalated.
Israel’s military said early Sunday that it has widened its ground offensive by sending more troops into Gaza. Over the weekend, Israeli troops demolished more than a dozen tunnels that were used by Hamas to sneak into Israel and carry out attacks on soldiers and civilians, the army said.
Israeli soldiers uncovered 34 shafts leading into about a dozen underground tunnels, some as deep as 30 meters (yards), the military said. Israel views the tunnels as a strategic threat, and demolishing them is a high priority in their campaign.
Footage released by the Israeli military showed tunnels being demolished by army excavators and other equipment on the ground and by airstrikes from above.
Palestinian gunmen disguised in Israeli uniforms managed to infiltrate Israel from Gaza using another tunnel and on Saturday killed two Israeli soldiers and injured several others, the military said. At least one Palestinian was killed in the clash.
Hamas said 12 of its fighters participated in the attack and that the group took some of the soldiers’ weapons back to their hideouts.
In two other confrontations, Palestinian gunmen jumped out of tunnels and shot at soldiers who returned fire. Two of the gunmen were killed. Another militant died when the explosive vest he continued…