Israeli strikes set hospitals, media and UN buildings ablaze on Thursday as tanks rolled deep into Gaza cities even amid hope that the war on Hamas that has killed more than 1,100 people may soon end.
Hundreds of terrified civilians, many gripping wailing children, fled the advancing Israeli troops inside Gaza City as warplanes pummelled the battered Palestinian enclave where half the population is under the age of 18.
While battles raged on the ground, Egypt kept up Western-backed efforts to end the 20-day-old war that was launched on the Islamist Hamas in response to rocket fire and that has killed an estimated 600 civilians.
Shortly after UN chief Ban Ki-moon arrived in Israel, a raid hit the main UN compound in Gaza, wounding three employees, setting fire to a warehouse filled with tonnes of aid and leading the UNRWA refugee agency to halt operations.
“I have conveyed my strong protest and outrage and demanded a full explanation from the defence minister and foreign minister,” Ban told reporters after holding talks with Israeli officials as part of a regional truce tour.
The UN chief, who has for weeks called for a ceasefire in Israel’s deadliest offensive ever on Gaza, repeated his call, saying the death toll had reached “an unbearable point.” “We have no more time to lose, we must end the civilian suffering now,” he said.
But Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni insisted the Jewish state would decide how and when to end its massive campaign. “We are doing our own assessments on a daily basis and according to them, we will decide when to stop,” she said.
In southwestern Gaza, an Israeli strike hit the Al-Quds Hospital in the Tal al-Hawa neighbourhood, where dozens of Israeli tanks rumbled into the streets in the post-dawn hours sparking fierce clashes with Palestinian gunmen.
The flames were contained and no injuries were reported in the hospital, where hundreds of frightened civilians had taken shelter to escape the battles raging just a few hundred metres away. “I brought the children to the hospital because they were scared at home, but here they are even more terrified,” 40-year-old Hossein said as he huddled with his wife and five
children in the pediatric ward.
“We can’t take this any longer. Look at my children, they’re trembling,” he said as mothers nearby tried in vain to console their crying children and make them laugh.
An Israeli raid also hit a building housing several media outlets in central Gaza City, wounding two cameramen, in an attack slammed by the Foreign Press Association group for media in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
In all, at least 37 people were killed in Gaza on Thursday, but the exact number of casualties was likely to be much higher as the ongoing clashes blocked ambulances from reaching the wounded, medics said.