Israel vows to destroy Hamas tunnels, deaths spike

JERUSALEM (TIP): Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Thursday to destroy Hamas’ tunnel network designed for deadly attacks inside Israel “with or without a ceasefire,” as the Palestinian death toll soared past 1,400 — surpassing the number killed in Israel’s last major invasion of Gaza five years ago. Netanyahu’s warning came as international efforts to end the 24-dayold war seemed to sputter despite concern over the mounting deaths.

The Israeli military said it was calling up an additional 16,000 reserve soldiers to pursue its campaign against the Islamic militants. At least 1,441 Palestinians have been killed, three-quarters of them civilians, since hostilities began on July 8, according to Gaza health officials — surpassing the at least 1,410 Palestinians killed in 2009, according to Palestinian rights groups. Israel says 56 soldiers, two Israeli civilians and a Thai agricultural worker have died — also far more than the 13 Israeli deaths in the previous campaign. As the toll grew, UN high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay accused both Israel and Hamas militants of violating the rules of war.

She said Hamas is violating international humanitarian law by “locating rockets within schools and hospitals, or even launching these rockets from densely populated areas.” But she added that this did not absolve Israel from disregarding the same law. The Israeli government, she said, has defied international law by attacking civilian areas of Gaza such as schools, hospitals, homes and UN facilities. “None of this appears to me to be accidental,” Pillay said. “They appear to be defying — deliberate defiance of — obligations that international law imposes on Israel.”

Pillay also took aim at the US, Israel’s main ally, for providing financial support for Israel’s “Iron Dome” antirocket defense system. “No such protection has been provided to Gazans against the shelling,” she said. At the United Nations, Israel’s Ambassador Ron Prosor responded to criticism of his country, saying: “I think the international community should be very vocal in standing with Israel fighting terrorism today because if not, you will see it on your doorstep tomorrow.”

Israel expanded what started as an aerial campaign against Hamas and widened it into a ground offensive on July 17. Since then, Israel says the campaign has concentrated on destroying cross-border tunnels militants constructed to carry out attacks inside Israeli territory and ending rocket attacks on its cities. Israel says most of the 32 tunnels it uncovered have now been demolished and that getting rid of the remainder will take no more than a few days. “We have neutralized dozens of terror tunnels and we are committed to complete this mission, with or without a cease-fire,” Netanyahu said Thursday in televised remarks. “Therefore, I will not agree to any offer that does not allow the military to complete this important mission for the security of the people of Israel.”

For Israel, the tunnel network is a strategic threat. It says the tunnels are meant to facilitate mass attacks on civilians and soldiers inside Israel, as well as kidnappings, a tactic that Hamas has used in the past. Palestinian militants trying to sneak into Israel through the tunnels have been found with sedatives and handcuffs, an indication they were planning abductions, the military says. Several soldiers have been killed in the current round of fighting by Palestinian gunmen who popped out of underground tunnels near Israeli communities along the Gaza border.

Israeli defense officials said the purpose of the latest call-up of 16,000 reserves was to provide relief for troops currently on the Gaza firing line, and amounted to a rotation that left the overall number of mobilized reservists at around 70,000. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. However, Israeli officials have also said they do not rule out broadening operations in the coming days. Palestinians have fired more than 2,850 rockets at Israel — some reaching major cities but most intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system. On Thursday alone, more than 100 rockets were fired toward Israeli cities, the army said.

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