GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli forces killed 19 Palestinians in fighting across the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, including at least nine militants, three children and a handicapped man, medics and witnesses said.
Israel has stepped up air strikes and launched raids into Gaza to stop rocket attacks and recover a soldier captured by militants on June 25. The army has killed 140 Palestinians since it began its assault. About half were civilians.
Wednesday’s death toll in Gaza was the highest in two weeks. Among those killed were seven loyalists of the governing Hamas militant group and one gunman from the kindred Islamic Jihad faction, which is also dedicated to destroying Israel.
Another gunman was killed later, but it was not clear which group he was from. Medics said two girls, one an infant, died when a tank shell struck a house near Jabalya, a Hamas stronghold. A three-year-old girl was killed earlier in the day.
Nearly 60 people were wounded, including a cameraman for Palestinian television. Six were in a critical condition.
Israeli troops have pursued an offensive in Gaza while fighting on a second front in Lebanon following the capture of two soldiers by Hizbollah guerrillas in a July 12 raid, but have failed to stop rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel.
Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called on the world to remember the plight of the Palestinians despite the conflict in Lebanon.
“This is the forgotten war,” he told Reuters. “We urge the international community to intervene.” Â
Israel’s army, which abandoned Gaza in 2005 after 38 years of occupation, said it had carried out strikes against gunmen.
Khader Habib, a senior Islamic Jihad leader, called for retaliation against Israel for Palestinian and Lebanese deaths.
At least 30 Israeli tanks and other armored vehicles pushed more than 2 km (1.2 miles) into the northern Gaza Strip overnight. The troops clashed with militants on the edge of the northern Gaza town of Jabalya through the day.
Buzzing overhead, unmanned drone aircraft fired missiles at militants on the streets, Palestinian witnesses said. Israel also bombed offices used by a Hamas-led force in Gaza City.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected demands by militants to free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, but said he might consider it later to help Abbas, a moderate.
The offensive has put pressure on the Hamas-led government, which was already struggling under a crippling U.S.-led aid embargo, designed to pressure the group to recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence and accept past peace deals.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Olmert seemed to be signaling a softening of opposition to a prisoner exchange.
“Olmert’s comments represented a beginning of a retreat in the Israeli position,” he told Reuters. “The Hamas position is clear. There must be a reciprocity of time and action in the release process, meaning the soldier gets freed and Palestinian prisoners go free at the same time.”