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Scores more killed as Israel escalates ground offensive

SCORES of Palestinians have died after Israeli troops, backed by tanks and warplanes, escalated their ground offensive in Gaza City.

The fighting against Hamas militants, including heavy Israeli tank fire, has left at least 65 people dead, forced thousands to flee and damaged or destroyed dozens of homes.

Palestinian health officials reported at least 65 people killed as air and artillery strikes echoed across the city for hours. They put the number of displaced at 35,000.

At least 420 Palestinians and seven Israelis have died in the near two-week conflict which escalated as UN chief Ban Ki-moon headed to the region to try to revive ceasefire efforts.

US secretary of state John Kerry, meanwhile, said he expects to arrive in the Middle East in coming days and that he support's Egypt's call for an immediate ceasefire, rejected last week by Hamas.

The Islamic militants say they want guarantees that Gaza's border blockade will be eased before agreeing to stop fighting.

Mr Kerry told NBC's Meet The Press programme that he is siding with Egypt, saying that "you cannot reward terrorism," referring to Hamas.

Yesterday's battle in Gaza City's Shijaiyah neighbourhood was the deadliest so far in Israel's three-dayold ground offensive, which followed 10 days of heavy airstrikes on targets linked to Gaza's Hamas rulers.

Israel has said it had sent thousands of troops into Gaza to destroy Hamas rocket launchers and tunnels dug by the Islamic militants to sneak into Israel.

The Israeli military said 8 per cent of more than 1,700 rockets fired at Israel since July 8 came from Shijaiyah.

Residents said Israeli tanks entered after midnight and fired heavily.

"The gate of hell has opened, and shrapnel came through the windows," Shijaiyah resident Jawad Hassanain said.

He said he and his family sought shelter in a nearby building after their house shook from the explosions.

"From 12.30am until 4am, all you could hear is heavy bombardment, the smell of fire and the smell of death. By 4.30am, and after the call for the prayer, we were able to get in an ambulance."

After daybreak, dozens of wounded from Shijaiyah were rushed to Gaza's central Shifa Hospital. Frantic parents carried children bloodied by shrapnel, and the emergency room quickly overflowed, forcing doctors to treat some patients on mattresses in a hallway.

During a brief Red Cross-brokered lull, paramedics entered the neighbourhood to retrieve the dead, pulling bodies from the rubble of homes.

Dozens of houses over several blocks were destroyed or badly damaged, a scene reminiscent of Israel's last major incursion into Gaza more than five years ago when large areas near the border with Israel were devastated.

Palestinian health officials said at least 65 people were killed and 288 wounded in Shijaiyah, bringing the overall Palestinian toll since July 8 to 425 dead and some 3,000 wounded. Close to half of the dead were killed since the start of the ground offensive.

Seven Israelis also were killed, including five soldiers, the military said. Dozens of soldiers have been wounded since the start of the ground operation, according to Israeli hospitals.

Lt Col Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, said the military met a "huge" level of resistance from Hamas militants in Shijaiyah, with anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons fired from houses and buildings.

He said that so far, 10 tunnel access shafts were found in the area.

Lt Col Lerner said Shijaiyah had been a main rocket-launching area and that were warned ahead of the offensive to leave the area.

"We are mobilising in order to strike Hamas where it hurts," he said.

Israel said Hamas' network of tunnels are a highly-developed web which links rocket building, maintenance and launching sites and stretches well into Israel.

Israel has also targeted the homes of Hamas leaders, warning they would pay a high price.

Among those killed in Shijaiyah were a son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren of Khalil al-Haya, a senior leader of the group.

They were killed at the time of dawn prayers. Hamas' military wing said the cause of death as an air-strike on the family. Israel's military had no immediate comment.

* RESPITE: Palestinian medics remove a body found under the rubble of a home destroyed by an Israeli strike in the Shajaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City

PICTURE: AP

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