Israeli forces expanded their offensive against Islamist militants deeper into the Gaza Strip on Sunday, triggering clashes in which 13 soldiers died and more than 60 people were killed in the shelling of a densely populated neighborhood of Gaza City, the army and local health officials said.
It was the deadliest day of fighting since Israel began its campaign against the militant group Hamas and allied factions on July 8. The Israeli losses were the highest in one day since a 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
Among the Israeli dead in fighting in the Gaza Strip were two Americans who were soldiers for the Israel Defense Force.
Max Steinberg, 24, whose family lives in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, was a sharpshooter for the Golani Brigade and was one of the 13 soldiers killed during the first major ground battle of the war, his family confirmed Sunday.
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Earlier Sunday, Israel said that Sgt. Nissim Sean Carmeli, 21, from South Padre Island, Texas, had been killed in combat in the Gaza Strip.
In a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Barack Obama “raised serious concern about the growing number of casualties, including increasing Palestinian civilian deaths in Gaza and the loss of Israeli soldiers,” the White House said.
Obama told Netanyahu he would send Secretary of State John Kerry to Cairo to seek an immediate cessation of hostilities based on a return to the November 2012 cease-fire agreement that ended a previous Israeli offensive in Gaza, the statement said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the deaths in the Shuja’iya neighborhood of Gaza City a “massacre” and called for international intervention to impose a cease-fire.
More than 430 Palestinians have been killed and about 3,000 wounded, according to Gaza health officials, since the start of the Israeli campaign, which began with 10 days of bombardment from land, sea and air, followed by a ground offensive begun on Thursday.
The United Nations said about 70 percent of the dead were civilians, at least 77 of them children. The army said it had killed 110 militants in ground operations.
Two Israeli civilians have died in rocket strikes from the Gaza Strip, and 18 soldiers have been killed in action during the campaign, which Israel says was launched to quell cross-border rocket fire by Palestinian militants.
After initially occupying sparsely populated areas up to two miles from the border, the army expanded its operations toward built-up neighborhoods of Gaza City on Sunday.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an army spokesman, said troops moving toward Shuja’iya had called in artillery and airstrikes when they encountered “intense resistance” from Hamas gunmen firing machine guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank missiles from houses in the neighborhood.
Lerner described Shuja’iya as a “Hamas stronghold” from which scores of rockets had been fired at Israel during the current fighting.
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said that Shuja’iya was shelled during attempts to extricate soldiers killed and wounded in the fighting.
“To our regret, this is the result of a reality in which Hamas and other terror organizations hide behind their population, which serves as a human shield,” he said.
Thousands of residents of Shuja’iya left their homes, and some sought shelter in Al-Shifa Hospital in the city center. A stream of casualties arrived in ambulances and cars, and photos from the hospital showed distraught men carrying the limp bodies of at least two children. The shrouded corpses of three other dead children lay in a morgue.
Yaalon said that troops had found a “subterranean city of terror tunnels” dug toward Israel under the neighborhood, which is near the Gaza Strip’s eastern border. Since the start of the ground operation in Gaza, 14 such tunnel networks had been found, he said.
On Sunday evening, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza claimed his group had captured an Israeli soldier. An announcement on Gaza TV of the soldier’s capture set off celebration in the streets of Gaza City.
But the claim could not immediately be verified. Hamas has made similar claims of capturing Israelis in the past that were not true.
For Israelis, a captured soldier would be a nightmare scenario. Hamas-allied militants seized an Israeli soldier in a cross-border raid in 2006 and held him captive in Gaza until Israel traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for his return in 2011.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.