Mohammed Abed / AFP / Getty Images

Security Council expresses 'serious concern' over civilian deaths in Gaza

UN chief calls Israel's latest incursion 'atrocious' before heading to Cairo for talks on ending bloodshed

The U.N. Security Council emerged from an emergency session late Sunday on the worsening situation in Gaza expressing "serious concern" about the rising civilian death toll and demanding an immediate end to the fighting.

Earlier on Sunday, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon called Israel's latest incursion "atrocious," and said it must do far more to protect civilians.

The council met at the request of Jordan, which had proposed a more strongly worded draft resolution for consideration. That resolution, obtained by The Associated Press, expressed "grave concern" at the high number of civilians killed in Gaza, including children, and called for an immediate cease-fire, "including the withdrawal of Israeli occupying forces from the Gaza Strip." 

The first major ground battle in two weeks of Israel-Hamas fighting on Sunday killed at least 65 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers and forced thousands of Palestinian civilians to flee their neighborhoods. According to the Gaza Health Ministry, 500 people have been killed since the Israeli offenseive began.

Acting council president, Rwanda's U.N. Ambassador Eugene-Richard Gasana, emerged to read elements of a statement that called for the need to improve the humanitarian situation in the region and welcome Egypt's efforts to broker a cease-fire.

The draft resolution had called for the protection of civilians, the lifting of the "Israeli restrictions imposed on the movement of persons and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip" and immediate humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza.

The Palestinian United Nations envoy, Ambassador Riyad Mansour, was disappointed. "We were hoping for the Security Council to adopt a resolution to condemn the aggression against our people," he told reporters. But he said Sunday's council statement was "a test" for Israel to see if it would comply.

Before the meeting, Mansour issued a challenge to the council, asking reporters, "If the world body in charge of peace and security is not stopping the killing of our people, where shall we go?"

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin stepped out of the meeting briefly and complained to reporters that the council had been summoned to meet without a specific proposal to discuss. "Obviously, nothing is going to come out of it," he said.

After the meeting, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, tweeted: "Gaza ceasefire would let us address urgent humanitarian needs & underlying issues. Must work to get off this dangerous path & restore calm."

Secretary of State John Kerry will leave early Monday for Egypt where he will join diplomatic efforts to resume a truce that had been agreed to in November 2012, according to the U.S. State Department.

Ban, who was in Doha on the first leg of a Middle East tour to try to end the bloodshed said "While I was on route to Doha, dozens more civilians have been killed in the Israeli military strikes . . . in Gaza ... I condemn the atrocious action," said Ban, who released the statements from Doha, the capital of Qatar.

He met Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiya before heading to Cairo where he is to meet Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El Sisi on Monday to discuss proposals to arrange a truce in the conflict.

Cairo has offered a cease-fire plan that is backed by the U.S. and Israel. But Hamas has rejected the Egyptian plan.

Senior Hamas official and spokesman Osama Hamdan told Al Jazeera that any accord must include lifting a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt on the Gaza Strip and a return to an understanding that ended a previous round of fighting in 2012.

"There was an Egyptian proposal, which was not accepted by the Palestinians because there were no guarantees for a cease-fire, there were no guarantees for lifting the siege on Gaza and stopping the violations in the West Bank", Hamdan told Al Jazeera. 

"I am looking forward to a model better than 2012. The events now are worse, the attack is worse — Israel has violated the 2012 cease-fire, so we need more guarantees from the Israeli side and the international community," Hamdan said.

President Barack Obama criticized Hamas when he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on the phone Sunday, their second call in three days to discuss the situation in Gaza. Obama reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself, but raised concern about the growing number of casualties, including the increasing Palestinian civilian deaths in Gaza and the loss of Israeli soldiers.

On Sunday, Kerry said on CNN's "State of the Union" that Hamas must "step up and show a level of reasonableness, and they need to accept the offer of a cease-fire." Then, Kerry said, "we will certainly discuss all of the issues relevant to the underlying crisis."

In a statement Sunday evening, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the U.S. and international partners "deeply concerned about the risk of further escalation, and the loss of more innocent life."

The most devastating day

The diplomatic attempts to quell the violence came as more than 60 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers were killed overnight in Gaza's Shujayea neighborhood. The U.S. State Department confirmed that two of the Israeli soldiers were US citizens but it remains unclear if they held Israeli citizenship as well.

Israel maintains that its offensive is targeting Hamas fighters in Gaza and a network of underground tunnels which they say are used to attack their troops and civilians.

On Monday, the Israeli army said that "two terrorist squads infiltrated Israel through a tunnel from north Gaza" and that it "killed 10 terrorists."

Spokesperson Peter Lerner told Al Jazeera that the Israeli army hit 16 tunnels with 45 access points so far.

Lerner identified the civilian deaths in Gaza as a "human tragedy," but defended the army's offensive saying that it was "a result of Hamas' policies".

At least 508 Palestinians have been killed since the start of Israel's "Operation Protective Edge" on July 8, of which the UN says the majority were civilians. At least 20 Israelis, mostly soldiers, have also been killed.

Al Jazeera's Nicole Johnston, reporting from Gaza City, said that shelling continued across different areas of the Gaza Strip.

"The people from those neighbourhoods [in the Gaza's east] say that their homes, their district has been destroyed and they're seeking shelter inside Gaza City," reported Johnston.

She said that the Gaza health ministry confirmed that a family home was hit by tank shelling and 17 people were killed, including women and children in Khan Younis, while a four-storey building was hit in Rafah, killing up to nine people, including four children and an eight-month-old baby.

Monday's bloodshed mirrored that of Sunday, which by day's end was the most devastating day of Israel’s bombardment. It ended on a celebratory note, after Hamas’ military wing announced it had captured an Israeli soldier. A masked spokesman for the Al-Qassam Brigades gave the name and military ID number of the alleged captive, prompting cheers in Gaza and in Palestinian communities beyond — but Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor reporters at the United Nations as the Security Council met that "There's no kidnapped Israeli soldier and those rumors are untrue."

The report from Hamas came after the eastern Gaza district of Shujayea was hit hard by Israeli tank shelling, leaving at least 60 dead and injuring at least 250 others, in the 13th day of the operation that has killed 440 Palestinians.

Both the Israelis and Palestinians had, early on Sunday, agreed to observe a two-hour humanitarian cease-fire  Shujayea to allow the evacuation of the wounded, but the pause lasted less than an hour.

We frankly have been overwhelmed by the numbers.

Robert Turner

Director, U.N. relief agency in Gaza

Israel's military said its forces were shot at shortly after the start of the two-hour truce, which was facilitated by the Red Cross. Israel resumed combat operations shortly after the reported action. The Palestinian Hamas movement did not respond to the accusation that it had resumed fire. Instead, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of carrying out a massacre and declared three days of mourning. 

Amid the intensified shelling, in Shujayea, dozens of bodies were brought to hospitals, and more were expected to arrive as ambulances tried to access the besieged neighborhoods.

Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor working at Gaza's al-Shifa hospital, told Al Jazeera that most of the casualties brought there were civilians who suffered shrapnel injuries and amputations.Throughout Gaza, the U.N. relief agency estimates that 70,000 Palestinians have fled their homes in the fighting and are seeking shelter in schools and other shelters the United Nations has set up. The relief agency's top director in Gaza, Robert Turner, told CNN's "State of the Union" that the U.N. has run out of mattresses for refugees. Few hygiene and medical supplies are left, he added, although fresh food and water remain available.

"People are scared," Turner said. "They don't feel safe at home, they don't feel safe with their families or neighbors. They feel relatively safe in our installations. ... We frankly have been overwhelmed by the numbers."

He said more than 1,000 homes in Gaza have been destroyed or damaged beyond repair, and at least 13,000 lightly damaged.

Defending Israel's actions

Meanwhile, politicians in the U.S. and Israel defended the country’s actions in Gaza.

U.S. officials made clear, however, that Hamas could bring relief to the Palestinian people if it agrees to a cease-fire proposed by Egypt — a view that Netanyahu is pushing as well.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, urged Israel to "stay as long as you need to stay, go wherever you need to go, do deal with a viper's nest called Hamas."

"If it's left up to Hamas, thousands of Israelis would be dead," Graham, R-S.C., told NBC's "Meet the Press."

"If it's left up to Hamas, thousands of Israelis would be dead," Graham, R-S.C., told NBC's "Meet the Press."

In an ABC interview, Netahyahu said Israel has tried to avoid killing Palestinian civilians through phone calls, text messages and leaflets dropped on their communities.

The prime minister said his top goal is to restore a sustainable peace, but then will ask the international community to consider demilitarizing Gaza to rid Hamas of its rockets and shut down the tunnels leading into Israel. Netanyahu brushed off a question about giving concessions to Hamas as a step toward peace, including releasing Palestinian prisoners or loosening border crossings.

Al Jazeera and wire services with reporting by Stefanie Dekker in Gaza

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