cbc.ca (© Copyright: (C) Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, http://www.cbc.ca/aboutcbc/discover/termsofuse.html#Rss)
Updated: Wed, 23 Jul 2014 07:39:57 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Gaza conflict: Fighting intensifies in town of Khan Younis



A relative of Palestinian Mahmoud al-Shawamrah mourns during his funeral in the West Bank town of Al-Ram near Jerusalem July 22, 2014. Israeli troops shot dead al-Shawamrah during clashes with stone-throwers in the occupied West Bank on Monday, both sides said, as tensions mounted over Israel's military offensive in Gaza. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman (© WEST BANK - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

A relative of Palestinian Mahmoud al-Shawamrah mourns during his funeral in the West Bank town of Al-Ram near Jerusalem July 22, 2014. Israeli troops shot dead al-Shawamrah during clashes with stone-throwers in the occupied West Bank on Monday, both sides said, as tensions mounted over Israel's military offensive in Gaza. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman (WEST BANK - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR3ZO9J Mohamad Torokman/Reuters

Israeli troops battled Hamas militants today near a southern Gaza Strip town as the U.S. secretary of state flew into Israel to press top-gear efforts for a truce in the conflict that has killed at least 650 Palestinians and 31 Israelis.

Trapped by the fighting in Khan Younis, a town on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, dozens of Palestinian families scrambled to flee the area.

John Kerry landed in Tel Aviv despite a Federal Aviation Administration ban following a Hamas rocket near the airport the day before, reflecting his determination to achieve a ceasefire agreement between the warring sides.

- LIVE BLOG | On mobile? Follow the story here

- PHOTOS | Israel's Gaza offensive

Kerry was to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Jerusalem and Ramallah in what appeared to be a crucial day in the flailing talks. U.S. officials have downplayed expectations for an immediate, lasting truce between Israel and the Hamas militant group that controls Gaza.

Also Wednesday, Israel reported that two more of its soldiers have died, bringing the military's death toll to 29, but did not elaborate on the circumstances of the latest deaths. Two Israeli civilians have also died in the 15 days of fighting.

A Palestinian health official said eight Hamas fighters died in the ferocious battle near Khan Younis, from where the Palestinian Red Crescent Socity, a Palestinian humanitarian organization, was trying to evacuate about 250. Khan Younis has been under Israeli tank shelling and drone strikes since early Wednesday.

The Red Crescent Society said Hamas fighters in the area were deploying rocket propelled grenades and light weapons, including machine-guns, against the Israelis.

Residents flee Khan Younis

Hundreds of residents of eastern Khan Younis were seen fleeing their homes as the battle unfolded, flooding into the streets with what few belongings they could carry, many with children in tow. They said they were seeking shelter in nearby UN schools.

"The airplanes and airstrikes are all around us," said Aziza Msabah, a resident of Khan Younis. "They are hitting the houses, which are collapsing upon us."

Speaking from Gaza City, CBC correspondent Paul Hunter described the overnight airstrikes followed by the response from Israeli tanks. "It was a loud night. It was filled with ear-splitting rockets being fired." 

The Israeli military did not respond to Associated Press inquiries as to why such heavy fighting was concentrated in Khan Younis, saying only it was conducting operations throughout the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinians say Israel is randomly deploying a wide array of modern weaponry against Gaza's 1.7 million people, inflicting a heavy civilian death toll and destroying large amounts of property there. By Wednesday morning, the Palestinian death toll stood at 650, according to Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra, most of them civilians.

Israel says it began the Gaza operation to halt Hamas rocket fire into Israel — more than 2,100 have been fired since the conflict erupted — and to destroy a network of tunnels leading from Gaza to Israel that are intended to allow Hamas militants to carry out attacks against Israelis.

As the Gaza death toll mounted, a 34-year-old Palestinian man was killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers near the West Bank City of Bethlehem, a potentially ominous development in an area that has so far been relatively free of violence, despite the Gaza fighting.

Mahmoud Hamamreh was killed in stone-throwing clashes in the village of Husan early Wednesday, doctors said.

On Tuesday, U.S. and European airlines quickly cancelled flights to Israel after a Hamas rocket hit near the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, dealing a blow to Israel's lucrative tourist industry. Air Canada also cancelled a flight to Tel Aviv on Tuesday over safety concerns.

The conflict is also starting to strain the Israeli economy. Military and finance ministry officials have said that the first 10 days of the operation had direct costs of about 2 billion shekels — about $628 million Cdn.

'War crimes' accusations at UN

Also Wednesday, Israel and the Palestinians accused each other of war crimes at an emergency debate at the UN Human Rights Council, and both said their actions during Israel's assault on Gaza were within the rules of international law.

"Israel will destroy Hamas' military infrastructure," Israel's ambassador to the body, Eviatar Manor, told the debate, referring to the Palestinian militant group controlling Gaza.

"However, the Gaza residents are not our enemy. Israel is fully committed to international law," he added.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki urged world powers to end what he called Israel's impunity, adding: "Israel must be held accountable for its crimes." His speech was greeted by loud applause.

The emergency debate came as the top U.S. diplomat flew into Israel's main airport Wednesday in a sign of sheer will to achieve a ceasefire agreement despite little evidence of progress in ongoing negotiations.

more video