Israeli death toll climbs to 25 in Gaza ground offensive

| Monday, July 21, 2014, 9:45 p.m.

For almost two weeks, Israel practically bristled with confidence and pride: The Iron Dome was dependably zapping incoming Hamas rockets from the skies, the military was successfully repelling infiltration attempts on the ground and from the sea, and the conflict with Hamas was causing almost no casualties in Israel.

That has changed since the decision was announced late Thursday to send troops and tanks by land into Hamas-ruled Gaza. Seven more soldiers were killed on Monday in clashes with Gaza fighters, bringing the Israeli military death toll to 25 — more than twice as many as in Israel's last Gaza ground war in 2009.

In a country where military service is mandatory for most citizens, and military losses are considered every bit as tragic as civilian ones, the reaction to the setbacks was electric. Newspapers and broadcasts have been dominated by images and tales of the fallen — mostly young faces barely out of high school.

But a high-level attempt by the U.N. chief and Secretary of State John Kerry to end deadly Israel-Hamas fighting was off to a rough start on Monday: Hamas rulers signaled they won't agree to an unconditional cease-fire, and Israel's prime minister said he'll do whatever is necessary to keep Israelis safe from Hamas attacks.

Israeli tanks shelled a hospital in central Gaza, killing four people and wounding dozens as the daily death toll surpassed 100 for a second day. Israel said the shelling targeted rockets hidden near the compound, and accused militants of using civilians as shields.

Across Gaza, Israeli fighter planes hit homes and a high-rise tower, burying families in the rubble. The strike on the Gaza City tower brought down most of the building, killing 11 and wounding 40, said Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra.

At least 565 Palestinians have been killed and more than 3,600 wounded in the past two weeks, al-Kidra said.

From the White House, President Obama reaffirmed his belief that Israel has the right to defend itself. Yet, he contended that Israel's military action in Gaza had done “significant damage” to the Hamas terrorist infrastructure and said he doesn't want to see more civilians getting killed.

“We have serious concerns about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives,” Obama said. “And that is why it now has to be our focus and the focus of the international community to bring about a cease-fire that ends the fighting and can stop the deaths of innocent civilians, both in Gaza and in Israel.”

The mounting bloodshed brought U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Kerry to Cairo for a new cease-fire push. However, the gaps remain wide and no credible mediator has emerged.

Egypt, Israel and the United States back an unconditional cease-fire, followed by talks on a possible border arrangement for Gaza. Israel and Egypt have severely restricted movement in and out of Gaza since Hamas seized the territory in 2007.

Hamas, with some support from Qatar and Turkey, wants guarantees on lifting the blockade before halting fire.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Britain's Sky News that the goal of Israel's strikes on Gaza is “to restore quiet and security for the people of Israel. ... We'll take whatever action is necessary to achieve that goal.”

But emotions are mixed in Israel: On one hand, there's a strong current of determination to end the rocket fire from Gaza; on the other, the sinking feeling of a quagmire.

“It's ugly, and it's no walk in the park,” said Alon Geller, a 42-year-old from central Israel. “But we have to finish the operation. If we stop now before reaching our goals, the soldiers will have died in vain.”

The Haaretz newspaper warned, however, against mission creep and the “wholesale killing” of Palestinian civilians. “The soft Gaza sand ... could turn into quicksand,” it said in its latest editorial. “There can be no victory here. ... Israel must limit its time in the Strip.”

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