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Israeli troops battle Hamas, uncover Gaza tunnels

 

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli troops uncovered more than a dozen cross-border tunnels and battled Gaza militants on the second day of an open-ended ground operation Saturday, as the Palestinian death toll climbed past 330 and diplomats scrambled to revive cease-fire efforts.

In US, fearful campers eye Middle East conflict 

PATRICK WHITTLE, Associated Press

Middle East Unrest US Sidd copy

In this photo made Thursday, July 17, 2014, Seeds of Peace camp counselor Eias Khatib, 25, of Palestine, center, talks with a camper in Otisfield, Maine. At summer camps in the Maine woods, the suburbs of Chicago and San Diego, fighting in Israel and Palestine has made for a summer of high tension, tearful calls from home, and unlikely friendships between people who might otherwise identify each other as enemies. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

OTISFIELD, Maine (AP) — Fighting in the Middle East has made for a summer of high tension, tearful phone calls and unlikely friendships between Israelis and Palestinians attending camps in the U.S. that host participants from the region.

Seeds of Peace, a lakeside camp in rural Otisfield, Maine, has brought together teenagers from countries at war for more than 20 years. Its counselors, also from Middle Eastern countries, say they all are united by fear of the violence raging overseas and a hope that their generation will be the one to end it.

At Hands of Peace, which operates similar summer camps outside Chicago and in San Diego, campers stay up late to call home, checking on family members. And campers at a Jewish summer camp in Maryland are praying for peace and the safety of family members in Israel.

"What I see is a rising conflict that doesn't seem to ever have an end or want to have an end," said 15-year-old Joshua Reyer, a Jewish camper at Camp Shoresh in Adamstown, Maryland. Reyer said it's a struggle to stay positive amid the violence.

Among the 50 counselors at Seeds of Peace in Maine are Israelis, Palestinians and Egyptians who are spending the summer breaking bread with colleagues who are on opposite sides of the conflict.

Eias Khatib, 25, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian and counselor in Maine, said a bomb went off near his uncle's building just this week. He said being away from family is unnerving and fills him with guilt. But spending time with Israelis and Egyptians who share his hope for peace is uplifting, he said.

"Things have to change. We, as a young generation, agree that this is wrong," said Khatib, whose mother's family is from Gaza. "But I don't see it ending."

More than 200 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Israel started launching airstrikes in response to rocket attacks from Hamas and Palestinian fighters. On Friday, Israel upped the ante with the beginning of a land offensive. President Barack Obama has said he supports an Egyptian effort to broker a cease-fire.

Cairo-born Monica Baky said she is conflicted about what role Egypt can play in bringing about peace. The 22-year-old Christian said she fears for her country's national security if it opens its borders but is sympathetic to the concerns of her Israeli and Palestinian colleagues about their homelands.

"In a sane world, people would actually sit down and talk to each other, rather than holding up their guns," said Baky, who's serving as a counselor at the Maine camp.

Hagai Efrat, a Jewish Israeli born in the Jerusalem suburbs, said he talks with family every few days about the air raid sirens that go off in their neighborhood. Efrat, who was an infantry soldier in the Israeli military at the Gaza border in 2011 and 2012, said he feels united with many of his colleagues at camp in opposing Israeli air strikes.

"I am a strong opponent of everything that is going on," the 23-year-old said. "I am so upset with what my government is doing."

Hands of Peace is in its 12th year of bringing together high school students from four groups: Americans, Jewish Israelis, Palestinians from the West Bank and Palestinian citizens of Israel. This year, there are 43 teenagers living with host families in the Chicago suburbs and another 24 in San Diego.

Camp founder Gretchen Grad said the growing violence in the Middle East has stressed many of this summer's participants.

"Kids are calling home, wanting to be in closer touch with their families to see if they've been affected. It puts them in a more fragile emotional state," Grad said.

At Maryland's Camp Shoresh, 14-year-old camper Nesiah Ely of Potomac, Maryland, said the fighting in the Middle East is disheartening.

"I think it's really hard to deal with, especially because we're in America, and it's really hard to think that you could change it or have something to help," she said.

In Maine, Seeds of Peace will welcome about 180 teenage international campers — including many from the Middle East — on Aug. 3. It will be a tense transition, but it's also a good time to help young people learn the power of dialogue, Khatib said.

"The kids are going to come over and they're going to be full of anger. They are already living in conflict, living in death and danger," Khatib said. "I need to be there for them, as a brother, as a father, as a friend."

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Associated Press writers Carla K. Johnson in Chicago and Brian Witte in Adamstown, Maryland, contributed to this report.

The Israeli military said it had severely diminished the arsenal of Hamas, the Islamic militant group ruling Gaza, but the militants have continued to fire rockets.

In the northern Gaza Strip, Palestinian officials reported intensified Israeli airstrikes, shelling and numerous civilian casualties. Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra said the new round of strikes raised the death toll from the 12-day offensive to more than 330 Palestinians, many of them civilians and nearly a fourth of them under the age of 18.

In Israel, a Gaza rocket killed a man near the southern city of Dimona and wounded four people, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said, marking the second Israeli civilian casualty from the fighting. An Israeli soldier was killed after the start of the ground operation, likely from friendly fire.

The Israeli military said during its first 24 hours on the ground in Gaza troops discovered 13 tunnels into Israel — some as deep as 30 meters (yards) — that could be used to carry out attacks. Israel says it launched the offensive to deal with that threat. On Saturday, the military said it thwarted a second infiltration attempt through just such a tunnel, killing one militant and forcing the others to return to Gaza.

The military also said it has hit 2,350 targets in Gaza, including 1,100 rocket launchers, during the 12 days of fighting. Militants have fired more than 1,600 rockets since July 8.

"We have struck hard on the two main strategic assets of Hamas: the rockets and these tunnels," Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said.

Israel says it has encountered little resistance on the ground so far, and has killed about 20 militants in sporadic gunbattles. Three soldiers were wounded in overnight fighting, one seriously, the military said.

In one case, it said troops encountered a man who appealed for medical assistance before pulling out grenades and trying to hurl them at soldiers. He was shot dead, authorities said. Troops also encountered a donkey with explosives strapped to it.

Israel launched the ground operation late Thursday after its air campaign on the Hamas-ruled territory failed to halt the unrelenting rocket fire. The rate of Palestinian casualties has risen since the ground offensive began — Al-Kidra said more than 90 Palestinians have since been killed.

Casualties could quickly mount further if the military moves further into urban areas.

Some 50,000 Palestinians already are staying in United Nations shelters, according to UNRWA, the U.N. refugee agency for Palestinians.

Early Saturday, Israeli tank fire killed at least five members of the Al Zawaydi family at their home in Beit Lahiya, including two children. In a separate incident, tank shell fire killed three members of the Hamooda family in their home, among them two children.

In Gaza City, two boys and a 1-year-old infant neighbor were killed Friday evening following the break of the Ramadan fast. On Saturday, at least two of the bodies were carried by somber relatives during a funeral procession in Gaza City.

A neighbor described the damage to the home as a "world turned upside down."

"The blood is filling the place everywhere. Small kids, it's a shame, they're kids," Amer al-Jumaasi said.

An Egyptian truce proposal was rejected by Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007 and has demanded the lifting of an Israeli and Egyptian blockade as part of any cease-fire agreement.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri on Saturday repeated a call for the two sides to adopt its cease-fire initiative, saying it is the only offer on the table, despite efforts from Hamas backers Turkey and Qatar to broker a deal.

"This initiative still presents the chance for the two sides to cease fire, ending the bloodshed," he said. "It meets the needs of both sides. We will continue to propose it. We hope both sides accept it."

In a fresh effort to broker a truce, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon was to leave Saturday for the Middle East to help mediate the Gaza conflict. A cease-fire is "indispensable" for urgently needed humanitarian efforts to succeed, the under-secretary-general for political affairs Jeffrey Feltman told an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Friday.

Israeli officials have said the offensive could last up to two weeks. The military reported making steady progress but said dozens of tunnels remain and would not give a time frame for its operation.

Israel's military chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, visited troops on the Gaza border early Saturday and said "a strategic national patience is necessary" to complete the mission.

"Hamas and other terror organizations have been hit hard, painfully and extensively," he added.

But Gaza militants have remained defiant despite the heavy death toll.

"The Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip will not surrender to the enemy and will not raise the white flag," Ziad Nakhala, a leader in the Islamic Jihad militant group, told a Palestinian radio station. "We are open to all possibilities as long as the enemy does not respond to the demands of the resistance."

Hamas has survived Israeli offensives in the past, including a major three-week ground operation in January 2009 and another weeklong air offensive in 2012. It now controls an arsenal of thousands of rockets, including long-range projectiles, and has built a system of underground bunkers.

But Hamas is weaker than it was during the previous two offensives, with little international or even regional support from its main allies, Turkey and Qatar. Protests against the offensive took place Friday in Turkey, Jordan and the West Bank.

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Heller reported from Tel Aviv, Israel. Associated Press writers Yousur Alhlou in Jerusalem, Sarah El Deeb in Cairo and Lefteris Pitarakis in Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.

 

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