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Israel-Gaza conflict: nine children killed in park massacre

A strike on a Gaza park has killed 10 people, nearly all of them children, as the death toll from the fighting rose on both sides.

The Israeli military said nine soldiers died in separate attacks – four were killed in a mortar attack and another five were killed in combat in Gaza.

The announcement brings the toll of soldiers killed to 52. Three civilians have also been killed on the Israeli side. Palestinian health officials say more than 1,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began three weeks ago.

Israeli and Palestinian authorities are blaming each other for the park attack.

The attack happened as children played on a swing in the Shati refugee camp on the edge of Gaza City, said Ayman Sahabani, head of the emergency room at nearby Shifa Hospital. Sahabani said nine of the 10 killed at the park were children under the age of 12 and 46 were injured.

The strike on the park happened a few minutes after the hospital's outpatient clinic was hit, leaving several people injured.

Gaza's police operations room, Civil Defence and Sahabani blamed the attacks on Israeli airstrikes.

Lt Col Peter Lerner, an Israeli army spokesman, denied Israel was involved. "This incident was carried out by Gaza terrorists whose rockets fell short and hit the Shifa Hospital and the Beach (Shati) camp," he said.

Gaza's Interior Ministry spokesman Eyad al-Bozum said he believes that shrapnel found in dead bodies and in the wounded is evidence of Israel's role in the incident.

"The occupation claims that Palestinian rockets hit the hospital and the park," he said. "This is an attempt to cover their ugly crime against children and civilians, and because of their fear of scandal and international legal prosecution."

In a text message, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called the strike on the park a "massacre". The Hamas military wing said that in response to the strike, it fired three rockets toward the Israeli port city of Ashdod.

Israel's military also ordered residents of parts of northern Gaza to evacuate towards central Gaza City, a sign that Israel may be broadening its assault. The areas warned included Shijaiyah, which saw one of the bloodiest days of fighting last week.

Earlier, Israeli jets struck several sites in Gaza and rockets continued to fall on Israel, the Israeli military said, disrupting a relative lull.

Israel says it launched its war on Hamas on July 8 to halt incessant rocket fire from Gaza. It later broadened the assault into a ground offensive, which is meant to tackle Hamas's network of tunnels which Israel sees as a major threat.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that his country must be ready for a "prolonged" military operation in the Gaza Strip and will "act aggressively and responsibly" until the mission is completed. Mr Netanyahu indicated in a televised speech that he is widening the objectives, saying that a demilitarisation of Gaza must be part of any future solution for the territory of 1.7 million people.

"There is no war more just than this," Mr Netanyahu said.

Mr Netanyahu said Israel will "not end the operation without neutralising the tunnels whose only purpose is" to kill civilians.

"We need to be ready for a prolonged campaign," he said. "We will continue to act aggressively and responsibly until the mission is completed to protect our citizens, soldiers and children."

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri struck a defiant tone in response. "His threats do not scare Hamas or the Palestinian people and the occupation will pay the price for the massacres against civilians and children," he said.

Earlier yesterday, the army announced that Gaza militants had infiltrated into Israel through a tunnel and opened fire on soldiers. Israeli media said five militants were apparently killed in a firefight and that searches in the area were continuing. In a further sign that Israel's operation is expanding, the army urged residents of three more Gaza districts to evacuate their homes and head towards the centre of Gaza City.

A truce between the sides remained elusive as diplomats sought to end the fighting at the start of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Earlier, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon reinforced the Security Council's call for "an immediate and unconditional humanitarian ceasefire" in the Gaza war and demanded that Israel and Hamas end the violence "in the name of humanity".

The UN chief accused Mr Netanyahu and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal of being irresponsible and "morally wrong" for letting their people get killed in the conflict.

He urged them to demonstrate "political will" and "compassionate leadership" to end the suffering of war-weary citizens.

He said "Gaza is in critical condition" after pummelling by Israeli forces that has killed helpless civilians and raised "serious questions about proportionality".

The secretary-general said he had a long talk with Mr Netanyahu and urged the Israeli leader to accept a ceasefire, and then address the root causes of the conflict. He said he has been in indirect contact with Mashaal through Qatar and Turkey which have good relations with Hamas, the Palestinian faction that controls Gaza.

The Security Council issued its strongest statement yet on the Gaza war at an emergency meeting, but it was not a resolution and therefore not legally binding – a point strongly criticised by the Palestinians.

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