Thousands of Israeli troops backed by tanks, aircraft and navy ships continued what appears to be a limited advance into the Gaza Strip on Friday, the second day of a ground invasion into the Palestinian territory.
Palestinian medics say at least 21 Gaza residents have been killed since the start of the ground offensive, which has the stated aim of destroying tunnels militants have used to attempt attacks on Israeli targets.
The Israeli army reported its first fatality early Friday when a soldier was killed during clashes with fighters from Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip.
Overnight, the Israeli army said via Twitter that it killed 14 militants, destroyed 20 rocket launchers, carried out nine strikes on tunnels and hit a total of 103 "terror targets."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday he was prepared to "significantly widen" the offensive, which until now appears to be more limited than Israel's 2008 and 2009 operation when about 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.
Yonah Jeremy Bob, a legal affairs correspondent at The Jerusalem Post, told VOA the ground invasion seems to be restricted to targeted strikes by special forces in some urban neighborhoods. He says most of the Israeli troops are either massed in open spaces on the edge of Gaza or are starting to surround urban areas.
"The Israeli government is hoping that with this initial operation and by destroying a lot of the tunnels in open areas, destroying more targets in some of the urban settings, that if they bloody Hamas' nose up enough, they'll be willing to settle for cease fire terms closer to what Israel wants," said Bob.
Hamas in recent days has proposed a multi-year truce that includes demands such as the lifting of the long-standing Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip, opening air, sea and land entries into Gaza, and the release of Palestinian prisoners arrested by Israel last month in the West Bank.
Israel has instead been pushing for an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire that calls for a "cessation of hostilities" in exchange for an increased movement of people and goods between Gaza and Israel. Hamas has rejected the plan, saying the offer amounts to a surrender.
In total, more than 260 Palestinians have died since July 8, when Israel expanded its airstrikes in Gaza in what it said was an attempt to stop rocket fire into Israel. The United Nations says about four out of five of those killed have been civilians, including dozens of children. Two Israelis have died.
Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, told VOA that the fighting has made conditions intolerable for the 1.8 million Palestinians who live in the impoverished Gaza Strip.
"The humanitarian plight of civilians in Gaza was desperate and has become absolutely catastrophic. Before the fighting, over 90 percent of the water was undrinkable, millions of liters of raw sewage flowed into the sea every day. Those dependent on UNRWA for food was well over 800,000. Then the war happened. 22,000 people have been displaced," said Gunness.
Mohammed Suliman, a 24-year-old Gaza City resident, tells VOA the airstrikes and shelling in his neighborhood are increasing. Early Friday, he said Israeli missiles struck an apartment building next door to his home at least five different times, killing a woman. He he says he had witnessed no militant activity in the area.
"I really feel like I could lose my life at any moment if I go outside," he said. "I've never been scared for my life like this. I really know that if I go out, it could be me being killed. There have been numerous cases of people who are killed merely for being outside of their home."
US, UN react
As the humanitarian situation worsens and the death toll mounts, world leaders have begun to strengthen their calls for restraint.
In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed "Israel's right to defend itself against terrorist threats." But in a phone call, he told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the U.S. hopes Israel carries out a "precise operation to target tunnels," as Israeli has described the mission.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday he is "alarmed at the serious escalation" in Gaza. He called for "an immediate end to the indiscriminate firing of rockets by Hamas into Israel and Israeli retaliatory action." He also called on Israel to do "far more to stop civilian casualties."
Israel says it is already doing all it can to prevent civilian deaths, noting that it often warns Gazans to evacuate certain areas that it intends to bomb, either via fliers, phone calls or warning missiles.
Since last week, Israel has carried out airstrikes on more than 2,000 targets in Gaza.
Hamas has launched more than 1,000 rockets at Israel. Most of the rockets were either intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system or landed in open areas. One Israeli civilian has been killed.View full gallery