Gaza City (CNN) — Hundreds of Palestinians fled in panic into Gaza City on Sunday as Israeli troops focused their firepower on the nearby town of Shaja’ia. The shelling and bombing killed at least 40 people, a Gaza hospital spokesman said.
The assault wounded 300 people, Gaza health ministry spokesman Dr. Ashraf al-Qedra said.
Some residents said they had received warnings from Israel in previous days saying they should flee, but the residents said they felt it was futile, and that they could face the same dangers in other parts of Gaza.
Overnight, Hamas’ military wing also fired rockets from Shaja’ia toward Israel. The militant group also turned down an invitation by Egypt to talk about a cease-fire initiative the country had proposed.
In Shaja’ia on Sunday, bodies lay in streets under gashes blasted into apartment buildings, said people who had escaped the violence, as the shelling continued.
Overnight, Israel ramped up shellfire in Gaza, and early Sunday, the Israel Defense Forces announced it is expanding its ground offensive into the Palestinian enclave.
Over Shaja’ia, a towering column of black smoke rose up, and live video showed a helicopter gunship chopping by overhead. Ambulances rushed up to take the wounded to hospitals, where moments later, they were rolled into triage.
Many of the wounded were hit inside their homes, the ministry said. Incoming rounds struck some ambulances and hindered paramedics from picking up some of the injured.
One paramedic died in the shelling, al-Qedra said on Hamas-run Aqsa TV. He said injured people were waiting on hospital floors and hallways for treatment.
At the request of the Red Cross, the Israeli military approved a two-hour cease fire to allow Palestinian emergency medical workers to tend to the wounded and dead in Shaja’ia, the IDF.
It also announced it would to open a field hospital on Sunday at the Erez Crossing into Israel, to treat injured Palestinians. On Saturday, the defense forces delivered truckloads of medical supplies to Gaza.
On the Israeli side of the border, the sound of outgoing artillery fire thundered every few seconds, as tanks and other military vehicles gathered for a potentially larger incursion.
One shell after another
One incoming shell followed another overnight in Shaja’ia, residents said, as they arrived on foot in a tide of humanity into Gaza City. They hunkered down in their homes in the dark and waited for daylight before fleeing.
Others arrived in bunches pressed into cars and onto donkey carts. Some stayed behind and flocked to U.N. schools.
Fawzy Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas, said on Aqsa TV on Saturday that there would be no truce or surrender while Israel is attacking.
The IDF is adding more troops to the incursion it began on Thursday, after more than a week of airstrikes.
Death toll spikes
As the battle between Israel and Hamas militants grows, the death toll in Gaza is rising at an accelerated clip.
On Saturday, 62 Palestinians died, according to Gaza health officials, as clashes between Israeli soldiers and Hamas Islamist fighters intensified, and Israeli tanks shelled targets in northern Gaza.
The overall death toll in Gaza has reached at least 386 since the Israeli military operation Protective Edge began July 8, according to Gaza health officials. At least 3,000 have been wounded.
The battlefield has widened, as Hamas Islamist fighters have infiltrated nearby parts of Israel via underground tunnels. They continued the attacks on Saturday and clashed with Israeli troops after surfacing.
The use of the tunnels was the main reason Israel gave for launching its ground operation.
Militants are also continuing to fire rockets into Israel.
On Sunday, 22 rockets flew into Israel; 18 hit populated areas and 4 were intercepted by the missile defense system Iron Dome, the IDF said.
Militants have launched roughly 300 rockets at Israel since the beginning of the ground operation, the IDF said. More than 200 hit Israel, and 64 were taken out by Iron Dome.
On Saturday, a rocket killed an Israeli in Negev and wounded four others, including an infant, Israeli authorities said.
Two Israeli civilians in total have been killed by Hamas rocket or mortar fire in the past week’s warfare.
Two Israeli soldiers were killed late Saturday as they fought in Gaza, the IDF said. It brings the number of troops killed amid the ground operation to five. Another two Israeli soldiers were severely wounded on Saturday.
The IDF is adding more troops to the incursion. It called up tens of thousands of reservists at the start of Operation Protective Edge to prepare for the ground operations.
Their goal is to weaken Hamas’ military capabilities and restore security for Israel, the IDF said.
The Israeli government has repeatedly said that the IDF does not target civilians and works to avoid innocent casualties.
Yet in Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas on Earth, more than 70% of those killed in the hail of artillery and airstrikes have been civilians, according to the United Nations.
A fifth of them were children. More than 40% of Gaza’s population is 14 years old or younger.
Mohamed Hamouda, 18, and Amr Hamouda, 10, were brothers. They died in an Israeli strike early Saturday in northern Gaza’s Beit Lahya and were buried that evening as tank rounds pelted target nearby.
The Israeli army has warned residents to leave.
It has sent text messages to many Palestinians and dropped leaflets over residential areas, telling them to flee.
But many Gazans feel they have nowhere to go in the small, impoverished strip of land. Border crossings with Israel and Egypt are closed.
“We can die there; we can die here,” says Ali Abu Darabli. “We all end up in the grave. It’s more honorable to die at home.”
As dangerous as Beit Lahya is, people are fleeing there from places that are worse.
1,770 rockets — 2,300 strikes
Since Operation Protective Edge began, militants in Gaza have launched 1,770 rockets, the IDF said in a statement Saturday. The Israeli rocket defense system Iron Dome has intercepted 360 of them.
The IDF has struck “2,300 terror targets” in Gaza, the statement said. In its recently launched ground operations, the IDF targeted 95 rocket-launching sites and found 13 tunnels with a network of at least 34 shafts.
The Israeli military said late Saturday that since its ground war began Thursday, at least 70 “terrorists” were killed, including 20 in the past 24 hours. Thirteen more fighters were captured and brought to Israel for questioning.
Fighting has displaced more than 61,479 Palestinians, a figure harkening to the peak number from Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-09. That offensive killed 1,166 Palestinians, including 709 Hamas operatives, according to the United Nations.
This week, leaders from the United States and Europe, which are allied with Israel, came out in public support of it defending the country against missiles from Gaza.