Israel agrees to two hour humanitarian truce

The ceasefire, requested by the International Committee of the Red Cross, will last from 1:30 pm to 3:30

In the Shejaia district, health officials said at least 50 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire. Picture: AFP.

JERUSALEM - Israel agreed to a two-hour humanitarian truce on Sunday in a neighborhood in the Gaza Strip hit hard by Israeli shelling, an Israeli military spokesman said.

The ceasefire, requested by the International Committee of the Red Cross, will last from 1:30 pm to 3:30 pm (1030-1230 GMT) in the Shejaia district, where health officials said at least 50 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire.

Hamas said earlier that it would abide by a temporary truce.

At least 40 Palestinians were killed on Sunday by Israeli shelling in a Gaza neighbourhood, where bodies were strewn in the street and thousands fled toward a hospital packed with wounded, witnesses and health officials said.

The mass casualties in the Shejaia district in northeast Gaza were the heaviest since Israel launched its offensive on the Palestinian territory on 8 July after cross-border rocket strikes by militants intensified.

Anguished cries of "Did you see Ahmed?" "Did you see my wife?" echoed through the courtyard of Gaza's Shifa hospital, where panicked residents of Shejaia gathered in family groups, while inside bodies and wounded lay on blood-stained floors.

Video given to Reuters by a local showed at least a dozen mangled corpses, including three children, lying in the rubble-filled streets.

At the hospital, about 3 km away, elderly men said the Israeli attack was the fiercest they had seen since the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel captured Gaza.

"Forty martyrs have been counted so far ... medics are searching for possibly more casualties," Naser Tattar, Shifa hospital's director, told Reuters. He said some 400 people were wounded in the Israeli attack.

Thousands fled Shejaia, some by foot and others piling into the backs of trucks and sitting on the hoods of cars filled with families trying to get away.

Asked about the attack, an Israeli military spokeswoman said: "Two days ago, residents of Shejaia received recorded messages to evacuate the area in order to protect their lives."

There were no signs of a diplomatic breakthrough toward a ceasefire, and militants kept up their rocket fire on Israel. Sirens sounded in southern Israeli towns and in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. There were no reports of casualties.

Hamas, the dominant armed group in the Gaza Strip, had urged people across the territory not to heed the Israeli warnings and abandon their homes.

As the tank shells began to land, Shejaia residents called radio stations pleading for evacuation. An air strike on the Shejaia home of Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas official, killed his son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, hospital officials said.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned "the new massacre committed by the Israeli government in Shejaia", a spokesman for the Western-backed leader said.

Israel, which has accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields by launching rockets from residential areas, sent ground forces into the Gaza Strip on Thursday after 10 days of air, naval and artillery barrages failed to stop the salvoes.

The military said it beefed up its presence on Sunday, with a focus on destroying missile stockpiles and a vast tunnel system Hamas built along the frontier that crosses into Israel.

Gaza's Health Ministry officials said at least 370 Palestinians, many of them civilians, have been killed in the 13-day conflict and about 2,600 have been wounded. On Israel's side, two civilians were killed by cross-border fire and five soldiers died as fighting occurred at close quarters.

The United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNRWA) said more than 63,000 people have now sought sanctuary in 55 of its shelters, mostly schools, in Gaza.

The army said that since the start of the ground offensive three days ago, it had killed more than 70 militants and that troops had discovered five tunnels running under the border. It said that since 8 July, it had attacked 2,570 targets, describing them as "terror sites".