GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The first major ground battle in two weeks of Israel-Hamas fighting exacted a steep price Sunday: It killed 65 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers and forced thousands of terrified Palestinian civilians to flee their neighborhood, reportedly used to launch rockets at Israel and now devastated by the fighting.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the offensive would continue “as long as necessary” to end attacks from Gaza on Israeli civilians.
But Hamas seems defiant, international cease-fire efforts are stalled, and international criticism is becoming more vocal as the death toll among Palestinian civilians rises.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon called Israel’s latest incursion “atrocious,” and said it must do far more to protect civilians.
In Israel, public opinion struggled to tolerate rising military losses in an open-ended campaign. Already, Sunday’s deaths marked the highest number of soldiers killed on a single day since Israel’s war in Lebanon in 2006.
The ferocious battle in Gaza City’s Shijaiyah neighborhood came on the third day of Israel’s ground offensive, which had been preceded by a 10-day air campaign.
In all, at least 432 Palestinians were killed and more than 3,000 wounded in the past two weeks. The overall death toll on the Israeli side rose to 20, including 18 soldiers, along with dozens of wounded troops, during that period.
On Sunday evening, Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri in Gaza claimed his group had captured an Israeli soldier. An announcement on Gaza TV of the soldier’s capture set off celebration in the streets of Gaza City.
But the claim could not immediately be verified and the Israeli military said it was investigating the report. Hamas has made similar claims of capturing Israelis in the past that were not true. For Israelis, a captured soldier would be a nightmare scenario. Hamas-allied militants seized an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid in 2006 and held him captive in Gaza until Israel traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, some of whom were involved in grisly killings, for his return in 2011.
Sunday’s battle began when Israeli troops backed by tanks entered the densely populated Shijaiyah district just after midnight Sunday. They were met by a “huge” level of resistance by Hamas fighters who fired anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons from houses and buildings, said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an army spokesman.
Residents said they came under intense Israeli tank fire.
“The gate of hell has opened, and shrapnel came through the windows,” Shijaiyah resident Jawad Hassanain said by phone. He and his family fled to a nearby building after their house shook from explosions.
After daybreak, the extent of the devastation slowly became apparent: At least 65 Palestinians had been killed and nearly 300 wounded, Gaza health officials said, while dozens of homes were badly damaged or destroyed.
Casualties were rushed to Gaza’s central Shifa Hospital. Wailing parents, some covered with blood or dust from debris, carried children peppered by shrapnel, and the emergency room quickly overflowed, forcing doctors to treat some patients in a hallway.
During a brief Red Cross-brokered lull later in the day, rescue workers toured the neighborhood to retrieve the dead, pulling bodies from the rubble of homes.
In a last sweep of the area on Sunday afternoon, rescue workers heard the faint voice of a woman in the rubble of a house.
“I’m here with my husband and niece,” the woman said, adding that there were also three bodies near her. “I’m here under the shop. God please, I can’t breathe.”
In the incident witnessed by Associated Press journalists, rescue workers tried to organize a bulldozer, but the situation was deemed too dangerous and the crew left. Later, the rescue workers returned with a bulldozer, after coordination with Israeli forces through the Red Crescent, and pulled the three from the rubble, said Said Hamam, a member of the rescue services.