GAZA CITY: Israeli strikes set hospitals, media and UN buildings ablaze on Thursday as tanks rolled deep into Gaza cities even amid hope that the war on Hamas that has killed more than 1,100 people may soon end.
Hundreds of terrified civilians, many gripping wailing children, fled the advancing Israeli troops inside Gaza City as warplanes pummeled the battered Palestinian enclave where half the population is under the age of 18.
While battles raged on the ground, Egypt kept up Western-backed efforts to end the 20-day-old war that was launched on the Islamist Hamas in response to rocket fire and that has killed an estimated 600 civilians.
Shortly after UN chief Ban Ki-moon arrived in Israel, a raid hit the main UN compound in Gaza, wounding three employees, setting fire to a warehouse filled with tons of aid and leading the UNRWA refugee agency to halt operations.
“I have conveyed my strong protest and outrage and demanded a full explanation from the defense minister and foreign minister, Ban told reporters after holding talks with Israeli officials as part of a regional truce tour.
The UN chief, who has for weeks called for a ceasefire in Israel’s deadliest offensive ever on Gaza, repeated his call, saying the death toll – currently at nearly 1,100 people – had reached “an unbearable point.
“We have no more time to lose, we must end the civilian suffering now, he said.
But Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni insisted the Jewish state would decide how and when to end its massive campaign.
“We are doing our own assessments on a daily basis and according to them, we will decide when to stop, she said.
In southwestern Gaza, an Israeli strike hit the Al-Quds Hospital in the Tal Al-Hawa neighborhood, where dozens of Israeli tanks rumbled into the streets in the post-dawn hours sparking fierce clashes with Palestinian gunmen.
The flames were contained and no injuries were reported in the hospital, where hundreds of frightened civilians had taken shelter to escape the battles raging just a few hundred meters away.
“I brought the children to the hospital because they were scared at home, but here they are even more terrified, 40-year-old Hossein said as he huddled with his wife and five children in the pediatric ward.
We can t take this any longer. Look at my children, they re trembling, he said as mothers nearby tried in vain to console their crying children and make them laugh.
An Israeli raid also hit a building housing several media outlets in central Gaza City, wounding two cameramen, in an attack slammed by the Foreign Press Association group for media in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
In all, at least 37 people were killed in Gaza on Thursday, but the exact number of casualties was likely to be much higher as the ongoing clashes blocked ambulances from reaching the wounded, medics said.
Since Israel unleashed its Operation Cast Lead on Dec. 27, at least 1,070 people have been killed and another 5,000 wounded, according to Gaza medics. Among the dead are at least 355 children, 100 women, 117 elderly men and 12 medics, they say.
Israel says 10 Israeli soldiers and three civilians have died as a result of combat or rocket fire.
Palestinian fighters remained defiant, sending nearly 20 rockets and mortars into Israel, without causing injuries.
Despite the raging violence, Ban said: I believe that elements are in place for the violence to end now.
Israeli envoy Amos Gilad arrived on Thursday in Egypt, which has been spearheading Western-backed ceasefire efforts.
Gilad was to be briefed by Egypt s pointman for Israeli-Palestinian affairs, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, the day after Hamas presented its vision for a ceasefire, limiting its acceptance to the plan s broad outlines.
This crucial meeting should last two or three hours, and Gilad should leave this afternoon to inform the Israeli government for them to take a decision, a diplomatic source close to the negotiations told AFP.
Israel doesn t seem to want to hurry, another shuttle visit could happen to reach an agreement in the context of the Egyptian initiative, the source said.
Although Egyptian and Spanish diplomats said on Wednesday that Hamas had accepted Egypt s truce plan, a Gaza-based leader of the Islamist group said after talks with officials in Cairo that it did not reject its broad outlines, without accepting the plan outright.
Israel has made stopping its deadliest offensive on Gaza conditional on a complete halt to rocket fire from the territory and a stem to arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza.
Amid the diplomatic push on Thursday are emergency sessions of the UN General Assembly and Gulf Cooperation Council.
Israel s offensive has sparked widespread concern about a humanitarian crisis in one of the world s most densely populated places where the vast majority of the 1.5 million population depends on foreign aid.