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Israel steps up Gaza ground offensive

Israel steps up Gaza ground offensive and civilian casualties increase.

Israeli ground troops enter the Gaza Strip, July 17, 2014. REUTERS/IDF Israeli ground troops enter the Gaza Strip, July 17, 2014. REUTERS/IDF

Israel warned on Friday it could "significantly widen" a Gaza land offensive but was cautioned by its main ally, the United States, about the risks of further escalation as Palestinian civilian deaths mounted.

Palestinian officials said 58 Palestinians, at least 15 of them under the age of 18, have been killed since Israel sent ground forces on Thursday into the densely-populated enclave of 1.8 million Palestinians.

The Israeli military said it killed 17 Palestinian gunmen while another 13 surrendered and were taken for questioning after the infantry and tank assault began in the Islamist Hamas-dominated territory.

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One Israeli soldier was killed in an apparent friendly fire incident, the military said, and several other troops were wounded in the ground operations. It said some 150 targets, including 21 concealed rocket launchers and four tunnels, have been attacked.

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Friday he had spoken to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, underscoring Washington's support for Israel to defend itself but raising concerns about "the risks of further escalation" and additional loss of innocent lives.

"We are hopeful that Israel will continue to approach this process in a way that minimises civilian casualties," Obama told reporters at the White House.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon planned to travel to the Middle East on Saturday in a bid to end the hostilities.

At an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council on Friday, U.N. political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman condemned rocket fire into Israel but voiced alarm at "Israel's heavy response".

The Israeli land advance followed 10 days of barrages against Gaza from air and sea, hundreds of rockets fired by Hamas into Israel and failed attempts by Egypt, a broker of ceasefires in previous Israeli-Palestinian flare-ups, to secure a truce.

After nightfall on Friday, flares fired by Israeli forces cast an orange glow above the coastal enclave as explosions echoed in what appeared to be intensified Israeli attacks from the air and ground.

Rocket salvoes, many of them intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile shield system, continued on Friday against southern Israel and the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, police said, causing no casualties.

"We chose to start this operation after we exhausted other options and reached the conclusion that without it we could pay a much higher price," Netanyahu told reporters before a special cabinet session at Tel Aviv military headquarters. "The main goal is to restore quiet.

"My instructions...to the Israeli army, with the approval of the security cabinet, is to prepare for the possibility of a widening, a significant widening of the ground operation."

He did not say what form a broadened offensive might take. Israel says its forces have focused so far on seeking out tunnels Palestinian militants might use for cross-border raids and moving weaponry.

One such infiltration was narrowly thwarted on Thursday, with the army saying it had repelled 13 Hamas gunmen after they emerged from a tunnel close to an Israeli farming community.

In all, 291 Palestinians - most of them civilians, of whom at least 50 were under the age of 18 - have been killed since fighting began on July 8, Gaza officials said. There have been two Israeli fatalities - the soldier and a civilian, who was killed by a rocket. More than 100 rocket bursts a day at southern Israel and the heartland Tel Aviv area have sent hundreds of thousands dashing for shelters.

 
 
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