At least 23 bodies were pulled from the rubble in Gaza City and its environs yesterday after a day that saw heavy clashes between Israeli troops and Hamas fighters, Gaza medics said.
Most of the bodies were found in the rubble in Tal al-Hawa, a southwestern neighborhood of Gaza City, after Israeli tanks pulled out of the area in the pre-dawn hours, the medics said.
Since Israel unleashed Operation Cast Lead on Dec. 27, at least 1,133 Palestinians have been killed and another 5,130 wounded, Gaza medics said. Some 600 of the victims have been civilians, including 355 children, they said.
Meanwhile, Israeli troops again pounded Gaza yesterday after killing a top Hamas leader, as the Islamists offered a conditional truce amid a diplomatic push to end the war that has killed more than 1,100 people.
Israel sent envoys to Egypt for more talks on Cairo’s plan for a ceasefire and to Washington to sign an agreement on preventing arms smuggling into Gaza, its key demand for ending the offensive that is now in its 21st day.
The army locked down the occupied West Bank for 48 hours after Hamas called for a day of “wrath” against the offensive in Gaza that on Thursday saw one of its top leaders, Gazan interior minister Said Siam, killed in an air strike.
Siam is the most senior leader killed in the war, a Hamas hardliner who oversaw the creation of the movement’s police force and was a key figure in the 2007 ouster from Gaza of forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas.
A day after Israeli raids set landmark buildings ablaze in Gaza’s main city, the military pummelled the territory with some 40 air strikes against fighters, tunnels and a mosque suspected of being used as a weapons store, the army said.
There was no immediate word on casualties.
In the pre-dawn hours, Israeli tanks withdrew from the Gaza City neighborhood of Tal al-Hawa, where clashes the previous day levelled parts of the residential area and set a hospital ablaze.
Medics rushed into the area, the site of furious clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian fighters that sent hundreds of terrified civilians fleeing for safety.
Many sought shelter at the al-Quds Hospital in the neighborhood, but the building was engulfed in flames after Hamas and Israeli troops fought pitched battles for 12 hours a few hundred meters from the medical facility.
In scenes of utter panic, patients who had been wounded could be seen struggling to get out of their beds to head outside into a cold night where clashes raged.
At least three babies in incubators and three people on life support were wheeled out of the al-Quds hospital into the flame-lit Gaza streets.
On the Israeli side, 10 soldiers and three civilians have been killed as a result of combat or rocket fire.
Israel said its offensive was intended to stop the rockets but Gaza militants have continued the fire and have now launched more than 700 rockets or mortar rounds during the assault.
On the diplomatic front, Egypt pressed on with its Western-backed efforts to broker a truce in Israel’s deadliest ever offensive on Gaza.
Israeli negotiator Amos Gilad was due to return to Egypt yesterday to discuss the details of a possible ceasefire, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office said.
Gilad held four hours of talks in Cairo on Thursday.
And in what was seen as a key breakthrough, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was to travel to Washington yesterday to sign a memorandum on joint efforts to halt smuggling along the Gaza-Egypt border.