, GAZA CITY, July 20- Israel said Sunday it would further expand its ground offensive in Gaza as the death toll from its intensive assault soared to 364 ahead of a visit to the region by UN chief Ban Ki moon.
Islamist movement Hamas, the main power in Gaza, refused to yield in the face of the relentless air, sea and land attacks, continuing its own assaults and reiterating that its demands must be met for any ceasefire to take place.
Diplomatic efforts to seek a truce were set to intensify Sunday with the arrival of Ban in the region to help Israelis and Palestinians “end the violence and find a way forward.”
Meanwhile Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal was to meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Qatar to discuss an Egyptian proposed truce, and the movement said it had received an invite to Cairo for ceasefire talks.
On day 13 of the bloodiest Gaza conflict in several years, early morning Israeli bombardments killed 14 people, medics said, including the son of a senior Hamas official.
Sunday’s deaths raised the total toll to 357 Palestinians.
Seven Israelis have been killed, including two soldiers in a Saturday commando-style raid inside Israeli territory by Hamas militants.
Two other soldiers were killed on Saturday, one by an anti tank missile and the other in a firefight with a militant who had emerged from a tunnel and attacked troops, the army said Sunday.
Israel said its ground operation to stamp out militant cross border rocket fire, which began Thursday, was set to “expand” later Sunday.
“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 Jewish state has authorised the call up of more than 53,000 reserve troops.
An intensive artillery barrage east of Gaza City before dawn Sunday killed two children, medics said, adding to a high civilian death toll.
The increasing number of children killed in the conflict is causing a growing outcry, with a joint statement from NGOs War Child and Defence for Children International saying more children had been killed than militants.
Figures provided by the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, indicate at least 73 of the victims were under the age of 18.
– Civilian casualties –
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu absolved Israel of all responsibility Saturday for civilian casualties, laying the blame squarely on the shoulders of Hamas.
A statement from Netanyahu’s office cited him as saying Hamas was “using innocent civilians as human shields for its terrorist activities; it is responsible if civilians are inadvertently hit.”
The UN’s Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, said earlier in the week it found 20 rockets stored in one of its schools in Gaza, condemning the “group or groups” involved.