Israel pressed its assault against Hamas-ruled Gaza with a land operation and a surge of air strikes on Saturday, killing at least 42 Palestinians, medical officials said.
Dr Muawiya Hassanein, head of Gaza emergency medical services, told AFP at least 42 people were killed as a “great number of rockets fired by Israeli planes” slammed into the northern Gaza Strip.
At least seven civilians were among the dead and about 100 people were wounded, several of them critically, he said.
Two Israeli soldiers were also killed on Saturday in Gaza, the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera news channel reported, but there was no immediate confirmation from the army.
Tanks supported by helicopters moved into the area in and around the crowded town and refugee camp of Jabaliya and nearby Tufah in northern Gaza just after midnight, witnesses said.
By midday troops had pushed nearly three kilometres (two miles) inside the Gaza Strip, according to witnesses.
The urban battlefields were littered with debris as frightened residents hid inside their homes and imams read Koranic verses over mosque loudspeakers.
“We are in the middle of a total war. We hear the rockets and the explosions everywhere… we cannot leave our homes,” Jabaliya resident Abu Alaa, 40, told AFP by telephone as he and his children took cover.
“They’re shooting at everything that moves.”
News photographers were hemmed in by the Jabaliya fighting and came under Israeli fire, a trapped AFP photographer said. A Palestinian working for the local Media Group was slightly hurt by an Israeli shell blast, his agency said.
Saturday’s death toll made it the deadliest raid on Gaza in well over a year, the operation came after a sharp four-day escalation of violence that has killed more than 60 people, including several children.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, whose forces were driven from Gaza when Hamas seized power here in June, called for “international protection for the Palestinian people,” from his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
“It is unthinkable that Israel’s reaction to Palestinian rocket attacks — which we condemn — can be so terrible and frightening,” Abbas said, adding that the attacks were targeting “innocent women, children and old people”.
Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), called “for an immediate ceasefire and political negotiations to end the fighting, which is impeding our humanitarian work.
“Those on both sides responsible for the killing of civilians must be held accountable,” he said.
In Ramallah about 300 Palestinians from all the major political factions marched through the streets, carrying pictures of children killed in recent Israeli strikes.
At least 12 militants were killed in Saturday’s operation, 10 of them from the Islamist Hamas movement, including Abdelrahman Shihab, the son of Hamas MP Mohammed Shihab.
An Israeli army spokeswoman said troops had killed at least 15 Palestinian militants, “all of them planting explosive devices or shooting.”
At least five Israeli soldiers were wounded, the army said.
Gaza militants meanwhile fired at least 40 rockets and mortars at southern Israel, including eight long-range rockets which crashed in and around the seaside town of Ashkelon, 11 kilometres (seven miles) north of Gaza, it said.
Six Israelis were wounded by the rockets that fell on Ashkelon, one of them seriously, it added.
Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai told public radio that Israeli forces were engaged in an “enlarged operation,” but denied it was the start of a major campaign aimed at partly reoccupying Gaza.
Senior Israeli political and military leaders have been mulling a major ground operation for months, as Palestinian militants have launched near-daily rocket and mortar attacks on southern Israel.
The spiralling violence has cast a shadow over peace talks between Israel and Abbas’s West Bank Palestinian Authority relaunched at a US conference in November that have since made little progress.
Since the talks were formally revived at least 275 people have been killed, the vast majority of them militants in Gaza, where Abbas no longer has any power, according to an AFP tally.
The latest deaths brought to at least 6,236 the total number of people killed in Israeli-Palestinian violence since 2000, most of them Palestinians, according to an AFP count.