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Over 25 percent Gaza population flee from homes, as Israel boosts troops

JERUSALEM: The United Nations has said more than 25 percent of Gaza’s population have fled their homes, as the US warns Israel the number of civilian casualties is ‘too high.’ UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos told a UN Security Council hearing the total number of displaced people in Gaza now stands at 440,000.

The Commissioner General for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), added that Palestinians are facing a ‘precipice.’ Pierre Krahenbuhl told the Council he had witnessed the “catastrophic human cost” of the conflict, in which more than 1,300 Palestinians have been killed.

He said the estimated 240,000 people who have sought refuge in UN shelters are facing dire conditions as a result of the extensive and often disproportionate use of force. Another 200,000 are believed to have fled to the homes of friends or relatives since Israel launched its military operation earlier this month in the face of ‘persistent’ Hamas rocket attacks.

Israel meanwhile, announced that some 16,000 additional troops are joining the operation in Gaza “to allow troops on the ground to rest.” The boost takes the number of reservists involved to 86,000. Israel has ordered its ground forces to locate and destroy a warren of cross-border tunnels which it says Hamas has used to infiltrate southern towns and army bases.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting on Thursday he was determined to finish the job “with or without a ceasefire,” as attacks on both sides continued. He said, “I won’t agree to any proposal that will not enable the Israeli military to complete this important task for the sake of Israel's security.”

The army said 32 secret passages had been found so far and half of them blown up, with the end of the operation apparently just days away. With further fatalities reported in Gaza on Thursday, the United States issued one of its most strongly-worded statements yet against Israel's military operation.

Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told reporters, “The civilian casualties in Gaza have been too high. And it's become clear that the Israelis need to do more to live up to their very high standards - their very high and very public standards - for protecting civilian life.”

The Pentagon has agreed to an ‘emergency’ Israeli request to stock up on grenades and mortar rounds from a store it has kept in the country for several years. Pentagon spokesman Admiral John Kirby said the request was received on July 20 and approved three days later, without needing White House approval.

Three Israeli soldiers were killed on Wednesday by a booby trap detonated as they uncovered a tunnel shaft, the army said, bringing the total military death toll to 56. Three civilians have also been killed in Israeli, including a Thai national.

Hamas’ military leader Mohammed Deif has said the militants will not cease firing until their demands are met. They want Israel and Egypt to lift a crippling border blockade imposed after Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007.

Meanwhile investigations continue into Wednesday's shelling of a market and a UN-run school housing more than 3,000 refugees. The school attack left 16 people dead, including children. Israel has said it is looking into the case, but has repeated it does not have a policy of targeting civilians.

It was the second attack on one of the UN's 80 schools, which are designated safe zones. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the school shelling was outrageous and unjustifiable. He said, “Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children.”