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By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

Gaza’s neighborhoods came under heavy shelling Monday as rockets continued to fly into Israel, and armed encounters between the sides claimed more lives ahead of U.S Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s expected arrival in the region.

Even as Kerry and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon prepare to weigh in and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was set to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Qatar, a cease-fire seemed far off and the crisis deeper than ever.

More Palestinians were on the move Monday morning as Israel’s military dropped leaflets cautioning residents of two refugee camps around Khan Younis. Fierce bombing continued overnight, killing at least 34 people, according to Palestinian reports.

One airstrike killed 11 members of the Siyam family in Rafah; in Khan Younis, 16 members of the Abu Jami family died when their house was shelled, the Palestinian news agency Maan reported.

In Shajaiya, emergency teams recovered more bodies from the rubble left by Sunday’s bombardment, pushing the Palestinian death toll in the two-week crisis above 500.

Israeli casualties mounted too as its military pushed deeper into crowded neighborhoods of Gaza in search of an elaborate network of tunnels dug under the strip to harbor weaponry and militants. Militants engaged ground forces with gunfire, anti-tank missiles, and explosives. One fierce battle ended with 10 dead militants; Israeli casualties were not immediately reported.

Since the ground operation began, 18 soldiers have been killed, including two U.S. citizens, and more than 80 injured.

About 59,000 reservists are already on active duty as the army stands by for government instructions to expand the operation in numbers and targets if needed. Israeli leaders stressed Monday that all options were on the table and that the operation would not end before the tunnels that borough into its territory have been destroyed.

“This is not the time to talk of a cease-fire,” Cabinet member Minister Gilead Erdan told reporters outside Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon Monday. “This mission cannot be completed until the strategic threat of tunnels is lifted,” the minister said, adding that Israel’s military should stay in the northern perimeter of Gaza until an arrangement that would demilitarize Gaza in the long term was achieved.

Several other Cabinet members commented Monday that the operation was not about to end.

After security consultations with his defensive minister and army chief of staff, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the operation would be “expanded until the goal is achieved — restoring quiet to the citizens of Israel for a long period.”

Since Thursday, 43 shafts leading to 16 tunnels in various locations throughout the Gaza Strip have been uncovered by troops and six tunnels have been destroyed with explosives and other means, according to military officials. Netanyahu said the results of the military campaign against the tunnels “exceeded expectations.”

At least 10 militants were killed Monday morning after infiltrating Israel through a tunnel emerging at an Israeli community near the border with Gaza and firing an anti-tank missile at an army jeep. The incident further underscored Israel’s concern about cross-border tunnels.

Roads were blocked and the residents of several communities were instructed to lock themselves in their homes while the army combed houses and countryside for militants they suspected planned to attack the civilians, the third such attempt in two days. The army has increased deployment in and around the communities near Gaza to counter the increasing attempts.

Although appearing slightly diminished in scope and range, rocket fire into Israel has persisted throughout the operation despite the destruction of around 3,000 rocket launchers, according to army officials.

While officials say Israel has found a working, if not hermetic, answer to incoming rockets with the Iron Dome air-defense system, the Palestinians retain about 50 percent of their arsenal, and barrages targeted Israel’s south Monday morning, with another volley intercepted over Tel-Aviv.

Increasingly, Israeli officials speak of the need for a long-term demilitarization of Gaza after a cease-fire is reached. “This is something we will discuss with the international community,” Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told reporters over the phone. For now, however, the operation remains focused on the tunnels, she said.

There was no official comment on a report in the London-based Arabic language newspaper Al-Arab on Monday claiming Israel recently bombed weapons earmarked for Hamas and stored in a warehouse in Sudan, north of Khartoum.

AFP Photo/ Said Khatib

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