GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The mayhem began in the early hours of Sunday morning in Shejaiya, an eastern neighborhood of Gaza City, where Israeli forces battled with Hamas militants. Terrified civilians fled, sometimes past the bodies of those struck down in earlier artillery barrages. By dusk it was clear that Sunday was the deadliest single day for the Palestinians in the latest conflict and the deadliest for the Israeli military in years.
At least 60 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers and officers were killed in Shejaiya alone, and the shattered neighborhood was quickly becoming a new symbol of the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, underlining the rising cost of this newest Gaza war.
The death tolls and the withering assault on Shejaiya appeared to shake the international community, with world leaders continuing to carefully call for both sides to step back but with criticism of Israel rising. Within hours, President Barack Obama had called the Israeli prime minister for the second time in three days, the U.N. Security Council had called an emergency session at the urging of the Palestinians, and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had issued a statement calling the attack on Shejaiya “an atrocious action.’’
By early evening, the Obama administration announced that Secretary of State John Kerry would head to Cairo to meet with Egyptian officials in an attempt to negotiate a cease-fire to end the bloodshed.
Throughout Gaza, at least 87 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire Sunday, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, bringing the death toll there since the Israeli air offensive began July 8 to at least 425, with more than 3,000 injured. The toll includes more than 100 children.
Israel has lost 18 soldiers so far, as well as two citizens killed by rocket and mortar fire. Two Americans were among the soldiers killed in Gaza; Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, identified them as Max Steinberg and Sean Carmeli. Steinberg’s family lives in California, and Carmeli was from Texas, The Associated Press reported.
In Shejaiya, the panic Sunday was palpable. Some of the men, women and children who streamed out of the area were barefoot. Israeli shells crashed all around, rockets fired by Palestinian militants soared overhead in the direction of Israel and small-arms fire whizzed past. Asked where they were going, one woman said, “God knows.’’
The casualties quickly overwhelmed local hospitals. Doctors treated some victims on the floor.
As the day wore on and the casualties mounted, it became apparent that what had begun Thursday night as a limited ground invasion to follow 10 days of intense airstrikes had developed into a more extensive and dangerous phase for both sides.
Late Sunday, Hamas’ military wing announced it had captured an Israeli soldier, though the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, said, “There is no kidnapped Israeli soldier,’’ adding, “Those rumors are untrue.’’
Despite the growing international alarm, Israel’s political and military leaders said that while acknowledging the pain for both sides, they were determined to continue with their mission. They have said the offensive is meant to root out Hamas’ vast network of underground tunnels, many of them leading into Israel, and to quell the rocket fire from Gaza, which continued Sunday.
In a televised prime-time address to the nation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “We are not deterred,’’ adding, “We will continue to operate as long as necessary.’’
Netanyahu said he had “laid the diplomatic foundation that has given us international credit to operate,’’ listing major Western countries that he said understood Israel’s right to defend itself.
In another sign that the conflict could continue to take a high toll, a senior Israeli military official noted that the Hamas fighters that Israel faced in Shejaiya had “learned lessons’’ from past conflicts and were tough adversaries.
“I have to admit that we were facing good fighters on the other side,’’ he said.
So far, Netanyahu appears to have the support of many Israelis, who were particularly shaken in recent days when militants used the “terror tunnels’’ that the government had warned about to infiltrate their country.
It is unclear how much support Israel will continue to receive abroad if the bombardment continues. Last week, Obama reaffirmed his “strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself,’’ but suggested that it was based on his understanding that “the current military ground operations are designed to deal with the tunnels.’’
On Sunday, he again backed Israel’s right to self-defense, but also raised “serious concern about the growing number of casualties,’’ according to a statement released by the White House.
Kerry, who used his appearances on the talk shows to vociferously defend Israel’s right to take action, expressed his own consternation in private critical comments that were captured by Fox News on a live microphone. Kerry is heard to say to an aide: “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,’’ adding, “We got to get over there.’’
His later answers to on-air questions suggested that he had been speaking sarcastically of an operation that is aimed at militants but had killed so many Palestinian civilians, including many children. He is expected to arrive in Egypt on Monday.
Ban called on Israel to halt its operation in Gaza immediately, saying, “Israel must exercise maximum restraint and do far more to protect civilians.’’ He also called for an end to the rocket fire from Gaza.
Ban spoke in Doha, Qatar, hours before a scheduled meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas called the Israeli action in Shejaiya “a crime against humanity,’’ according to Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency.
Like other Israeli officials, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, noted that ground forces moved into Shejaiya after area residents had been warned to leave for days. But some residents have said they are unsure where they could go to be safe in the small, densely populated enclave.
Lerner said Hamas had “fortified’’ the whole neighborhood not far from the border with Israel, building a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the houses, which he called Lower Gaza. The fighting started about 1 a.m. and lasted about seven hours. Lerner said the Hamas fighters were armed with anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons.
As the battle waned, the horror unfolded. Dark smoke rose at the edge of Shejaiya, and shelling cracked and thumped nearby with just a few seconds’ pause between rounds. Clusters of people periodically emerged from the narrower streets and rushed up the hill toward downtown.
A chain of five children holding hands trotted uphill, dragged by an adult — the smallest boy, around 3, with an expression of confusion and terror. Barefoot, he clutched his flip-flops in his hand. Taxis ventured only to the bottom of the street, where they picked up pedestrians, so many on occasion that some had to sit in an open hatchback or trunk. In the chaos, many parents were separated from their children.
At Shifa Hospital, a girl who looked about 9 was brought into the emergency room and laid on a gurney, blood soaking the shoulder of her shirt. Motionless and barely alive, she stared at the ceiling, her mouth open. There was no relative with her to give her name. The medical staff stood quietly around her. Every now and then, they checked her vital signs, until it was time. They covered her with a white sheet, and she was gone. A few moments later, a new patient lay on the gurney.
The hospital grounds were crowded with displaced families sitting on the grass. Taghreed Harazin, 34, sat under a gazebo with her 6-month-old son, Diaa, in the car seat in which she had carried him on foot until finding a taxi. She said she had believed the evacuation order was only for the eastern part of the neighborhood, and mistakenly thought she would be safe at home. Moving was frightening, she said, because of airstrikes.
But during the night, heavy shelling started. They went to the basement for three hours, then ventured out at dawn.
As the family dashed through the streets to avoid crashing shells, Harazin, said, she saw the decapitated body of a boy who looked about 4.
“We are not Hamas, and we are not with the others,’’ Harazin said. “We just want to live in our homes.’’
Asked what she thought of Hamas’ handling of the current war, she said, “Sometimes it’s difficult to express your opinion.’’ She said her husband had been beaten for complaining about Hamas.
Wadha Abu Amr, 62, said her family were refugees from what is now Beersheba, who fled in 1948 during the war over Israel’s founding.
“I’m afraid that this is another 1948,’’ she said, “God forbid. We were driven out in 1948 and we are being driven out again now.’’
In the worst-hit area, a cinder block building had been flattened; a neighboring one was only partially standing and others across the street were burned. On side streets, broken glass and rubble littered the ground, and the walls were pocked with shrapnel marks. Workers tried to pull bodies from rubble.
Several men appeared to be fighters, emerging from a hole broken in a concrete wall and shooing photographers away.
The remains of an exploded ambulance littered one street, the engine blown away from the ripped body of the vehicle. During the fighting, a Palestinian journalist who had ridden with an ambulance crew into the neighborhood was killed, along with a paramedic, whose body lay on a stretcher at Shifa Hospital, still in green scrubs.
In Israel, the mood was grim but determined. The military, suffering its heaviest loss in a single day since the 2006 war in Lebanon, said seven of the 13 soldiers were killed when militants detonated an explosive device against their armored personnel carrier, three died in clashes with militants and three died trapped in a burning building.
The senior military official, who briefed reporters in Tel Aviv and spoke on the condition of anonymity in line with army rules, said the forces faced hundreds of Hamas fighters.
“It was a real battle there,’’ he said. “They were hiding in the apartments, shooting at the Israeli soldiers from the apartments, from the houses, from the windows.’’