The Israeli army said Sunday it was expanding its ground offensive against the Gaza Strip, as the bloodiest conflict since 2009 entered its 13th day with a death toll of over 350, Agence France-Presse reported.
“This evening, the ground phase of Operation Protective Edge expands, as additional forces join the effort to combat terror in the Gaza Strip and establish a reality in which Israeli residents can live in safety and security,” the army said in a statement.
The army started the ground offensive late Thursday, after 10 days of aerial and naval bombardment of the besieged Palestinian territory, in a bid to stamp out rocket fire from Gaza militants.
Meanwhile, thousands of people fled Gaza’s eastern Shejaiya district, after heavy shelling left casualties lying in the streets, an AFP correspondent reported.
Ambulances were unable to reach much of the area along the border because of heavy fire, and emergency services said.
There were reports of dead and wounded trapped by the bombardment.
The Hamas military wing said its fighters exchanged fire with Israeli forces in Shijaiyah and a nearby neighborhood.
A Palestinian cameraman and a paramedic were among those killed in Shejaiya.
“Cameraman Khaled Hammad and paramedic Fuad Jaber were killed in a strike on an ambulance, while they were trying to evacuate the wounded from Shejaiya,” Ashraf al-Qudra, the spokesperson for the emergency services said, according to AFP.
Shortly after the announcement, an army statement said two more soldiers had been killed late Saturday in fighting in and around the Gaza Strip, naming them as Bar Rahav, 21, and Bnaya Rubel, 20.
Since the ground operation began, seven Israeli soldiers have been killed, including two in a firefight with Hamas militants inside Israeli territory.
Since the start of Israel-Hamas fighting almost two weeks ago, 348 Palestinians were killed and 2,700 wounded in Israeli air and artillery strikes, according to Palestinian health officials.
One-fourth of the deaths were reported since the start of the ground offensive, the officials said, according to the Associated Press.
Israel said it is going to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties and blames them on Hamas, accusing it of firing from within residential neighborhoods and using civilians as “human shields.”
Casualties could mount quickly if the military moves deeper into urban areas.
Some 50,000 Palestinians are already staying in United Nations shelters, according to UNRWA, the U.N. refugee agency for Palestinians.