Thousands were fleeing northern Gaza Sunday after a night of fierce bombardment as Israel expanded a ground assault on day 13 of the deadliest violence in the enclave in five years.
As UN chief Ban Ki-moon was to arrive in the region to add his weight to truce efforts, the Palestinian death toll hit 370 although medics said it was set to soar after a night of intense attacks to the north and east of Gaza City.
At least 40 Palestinians were killed on Sunday by Israeli shelling of the eastern Gaza district of Shujayeh, a medical official said.
“Forty martyrs have been counted so far and bodies were picked up. Medics are searching for possibly more casualties,” Naser Tattar, director of Gaza’s Shifa hospital, told Reuters. He said some 400 people were wounded in the Israeli attack.
Emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said at least 20 bodies had been retrieved from the eastern Shujayeh district, but ongoing fire was preventing the evacuation of many more.
Earlier, Qudra said at least six people had been killed in heavy shelling east of Gaza City, among them a woman, two children and the son of senior Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya.
Another seven people were killed in the southern city of Rafah overnight by both tank fire and air strikes.
And a 29-year-old man died in an air strike in central Gaza.
A Palestinian cameraman and a paramedic were also among dozens of people killed in Shujayeh on Sunday, medics said.
“Cameraman Khaled Hammad and paramedic Fuad Jaber were killed in a strike on an ambulance, while they were trying to evacuate the wounded from Shujayeh,” Qudra told AFP.
“He wasn’t a fighter, he was a fighter for humanity,” wailed one relative of Jaber as the family buried him. ”
“He was an ambulance worker, did he deserve to die?”
Early on Sunday, the Israeli army confirmed two more soldiers had been killed overnight, raising to seven the overall Israeli toll.
Four soldiers were killed on Saturday, among them two who died in militant raid inside Israel. Another was killed by an anti-tank missile while the fourth died in a firefight with a militant, the army said.
Diplomatic efforts to seek a truce were to intensify Sunday with Hamas’s exiled leader Khaled Meshaal to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Qatar to discuss an Egyptian truce proposal.
The UN chief was also headed to the Qatari capital.
Although Hamas had made its position clear, it was “ready to cooperate with a move by any party that will achieve the specific Palestinian demands,” a statement said.
The Egyptian foreign ministry was not able to confirm or deny the new invitation.
Earlier this week, an Egyptian truce proposal was accepted by Israel, but turned down by Hamas which said it had not been consulted.
Hamas is demanding an end of the “war on the Gaza Strip,” a complete lift of the siege on it, opening the Rafah crossing with Egypt, freedom of movement in the border areas, cancelling the buffer zone and expanding the freedom to fish 12 nautical miles from shore.
In addition, Hamas demands the release of its members who had been freed in a 2011 deal and recently re-arrested in an Israeli crackdown on the West Bank.
A senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is dominated by Abbas’s Fatah party, said in an interview on Palestinian television that the West Bank-based leadership recognized Hamas’s demands.
“These are also our demands,” Yasser Abed Rabbo said. “If Gaza is broken, all Palestinians will be broken.”
Hamas said Sunday it had accepted a proposal for a three-hour humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza it said was made by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“The ICRC contacted (us) and offered to broker a three-hour humanitarian truce to enable ambulances to evacuate the dead and wounded and Hamas accepted it,” spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement.
“Hamas agreed on it but the occupation refused it,” he claimed, although Israeli public radio reported that the Israeli government was studying the proposal.
Meanwhile, Israel said its ground operation was to “expand” later Sunday.
“This evening, the ground phase of Operation Protective Edge expands, as additional forces join the effort to combat terror in the Gaza Strip and establish a reality in which Israeli residents can live in safety and security,” the army said.
”Dead people lying in the streets”
Thousands of Palestinians, barefoot and in their pajamas, streamed out of Shujayeh after a night of non-stop Israeli bombing.
They described hours of terror, as tank shells slammed into homes, with no electricity and no way to escape.
They called ambulances, but there was no way for the vehicles to get in under the constant fire.
So in the end, thousands of desperate residents fled on foot at first light, walking two hours or more into Gaza City.
They left behind the bodies of the dead in the streets of their neighborhoods – in Nazzaz, in Shaaf and in other parts of this flashpoint area between Gaza City and the border.
Video given to Reuters by a local showed at least a dozen mangled corpses, including three children, lying in the rubble-filled streets.
Ahmed fled with his wife and sisters-in-law and their children.
His daughters were barefoot and confused, sleepy as they walked into eastern Gaza City, their parents desperately searching for a safe place to take shelter.
“The shelling started last night, around 9pm and it just got worse and worse,” he said.
“The bombing was all around us – there was no light, no water, we didn’t know what to do.”
“We called the emergency services but they said they couldn’t reach us, so we decided to leave on foot,” he added.
With both the Israeli and Egyptian borders sealed off, Gazans say they have few places to escape to.
So far, UNRWA has opened 55 of its schools to shelter those fleeing the most heavily bombarded areas, with more than 63,000 people taking refuge in them, the agency said.
“The number has tripled in the last three days reflecting the intensity of the conflict and the inordinate threats the fighting is posing to civilians,” spokesman Chris Gunness said in a statement.
At the Shifa hospital, ambulances arrived every five minutes.
But the wounded and the dead were also brought in by car and truck.
One man came in with his legs sticking out of a rolled-down window.
The injuries were mostly from shrapnel, with one boy peppered with wounds, his arms held out to the side, screaming in pain as he was brought into the hospital.
Anguished cries of “Did you see Ahmed?” “Did you see my wife?” echoed through the courtyard of the hospital, where panicked residents of Shujayeh gathered in family groups, while inside bodies and wounded lay on blood-stained floors.
One child was clearly already dead, his head hanging lifelessly.
Fights broke out in the emergency room as hysterical parents banged on the walls in fear and sorrow.
Before dawn, an intensive artillery barrage struck areas east of Gaza City, killing at least two children, medics said.
The increasing number of children killed in the conflict is causing a growing outcry, with a joint statement from NGOs War Child and Defense for Children International saying more children had been killed than fighters.
Figures provided by the UN children’s agency on Sunday showed that at least 73 of the victims were under the age of 18.
Many people were coated in a layer of dust that turned their faces grey and stuck to their blood on their clothes.
Doctor Said Hassan was standing outside waiting for the arrivals, after evacuating his family from the frontlines in Shujayeh the day before.
“The ambulances can’t reach everyone, the ones who are coming in now were injured hours and hours ago and have either walked or been carried to places where they could be picked up,” he said.
“We’ve been told that there are injured and dead people lying in the streets,” he said.
“The is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” added Hassan, 38, who has worked for Gaza’s health ministry for the last eight years.
Ambulance worker Alaa washed down the inside of his vehicle with disinfectant and a blanket after bringing in another round of wounded.
“We had a pregnant woman who was injured, and on the road we found a man with his daughter so we brought them too,” he said.
“But we can’t get to many areas, there is too much fire, we got trapped at one point.”
Distraught men and women begged the ambulances to go to their neighborhoods to pick up the wounded.
“There are dead people in our house, why won’t you come?” one man screamed at Alaa.
“We’re trying, we can’t get in. We were fired on more than once,” Alaa replied in frustration.
Sabah Mamluk, 40, arrived at the hospital with her mother and her two daughters, both of them barefoot.
“The shelling was non-stop, it was everywhere,” she told AFP.
“We ran into the streets and started to walk. It was terrifying. We got split up and found an ambulance that could bring us, but my husband is still there with the rest of the children and I can’t reach him by telephone.”
At the hospital, about three kilometers (two miles) away from Shujayeh, elderly men said the Israeli attack was the fiercest they had seen since the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel captured Gaza.
Residents still trapped inside Shujayeh described absolute terror.
“This is one of the worst days of our lives,” said 23-year-old Marah al-Wadia, speaking by phone from the Nazzaz district.
“We’ve been sitting all together in one room since last night just waiting for the shelling to stop so we can leave,” she added.
“A shell hit our neighbor’s house yesterday and we heard the sound of screaming but we couldn’t come to their rescue and we still don’t know what’s happened to them.”