GAZA (Reuters) - Israeli forces killed 60 people in the Gaza Strip on Saturday, the bloodiest day for Palestinians since an uprising against Israeli occupation began in 2000.
Israel, which lost two soldiers, seemed ready to press home its fiercest assault since it pulled troops back to the borders of the coastal enclave in 2005. It blamed Hamas Islamist rocket fire on Israel for provoking four days of fighting, in which dozens of civilians have been among the 95 Palestinians killed.
The U.N. Security Council prepared to meet in New York and a U.N. official in Gaza appealed for international action to end the “inhuman suffering” of its 1.5 million people.
A day after an Israeli official warned Gazans of a “shoah” — which typically means holocaust — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a sworn enemy of Gaza’s Hamas rulers, called it “more than a holocaust”.
Aides said it may wreck peace talks that were revived with U.S. backing after collapsing in 2000.
At least 30 of the dead were civilians, among them women and children, said Palestinian doctors working round the clock.
Two Israeli soldiers were also killed and seven wounded, the army said — its first deaths in Gaza since October. Dozens of Hamas rockets hit Israeli border areas, wounding several people. An Israeli civilian was killed on Wednesday, the first since May.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Israel was “not happy” civilians were being hurt but blamed Hamas for firing rockets from built-up areas and said it would “pay the price”.
His deputy Matan Vilnai earlier said Gaza faced a “shoah” — a holocaust or catastrophe. On Saturday, he said: “As long as events escalate the chances we will use greater force increase.”
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this week. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat warned: “If Israeli aggression continues, it will bury the peace process in the rubble.”
A spokesman for Israel’s chief negotiator said: “What Israel is doing in Gaza is fighting terror and it will be continued.”
More than 48 rockets and mortars landed on Saturday.
Of the 60 killed, 30 were fighters, according to hospital staff and Hamas, which routed Abbas’s Western-backed forces in Gaza in June.
“Uncle, I don’t want to die. I want my dad,” a toddler screamed as doctors tried to treat burn wounds across her body in Gaza’s main Shifa hospital. The girl was injured in a house which the Israeli army said was used to store and make weapons.
One of the dead civilians was a mother who was preparing breakfast for her children when she was hit by gunfire, relatives and medical workers said. One missile slammed into a crowd of Palestinians, killing four civilians, medics said.
In Damascus, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said: “I say to the Zionist leaders, if they decided to raid Gaza, they will be fought not by dozens ... but ... by 1.5 million people.”
A senior U.N. official in Gaza, John Ging, appealed to world leaders to interrupt their weekend to stop the fighting:
“Killing Palestinian women and children will not bring security to the people of Israel,” he said, cautioning Israeli commanders about the risk of committing war crimes. He also said Hamas’s rocket fire would not achieve Palestinians’ goals.
Palestinians said Israelis made their biggest and deepest incursion into Gaza in the 30 months since Israel pulled out settlers and troops after 38 years of occupation. It has since imposed a blockade on Gaza’s borders, drawing international complaints it is abusing its role as occupying power.
Daily rocket fire for months has put Olmert under pressure from voters to act. But the government, chastened by a costly war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon in 2006, is wary of an outright invasion of the densely populated coastal region.
Olmert’s deputy, Vice Premier Haim Ramon, said: “We need to act with all our might, but without taking steps that will hurt us more than help us — by which I mean reoccupying Gaza.”
He said the main targets would be those directly involved in firing rockets and the broader Islamist leadership in Gaza.
Washington has urged Israel to “consider the consequences”. Bloodshed could derail U.S. hopes of a deal on a Palestinian state this year before President George W. Bush steps down.
Abbas’s power is now restricted to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. While he would shed few tears if Israel destroyed Hamas, he risks losing already patchy support in the West Bank if he is not seen to be speaking out against the Israeli military action.
Reflecting the depth of factional rifts among Palestinians, Abbas rejected a charge by Meshaal that he was giving cover to Israel. He declared Sunday a day of national mourning.
(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, Adam Entous, Avida Landau and Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah)
Writing by Alastair Macdonald