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Much of Gaza without electricity as Israel targets area’s only power plant

Israel on Tuesday knocked out the only power plant in the Gaza Strip, flattened the house of the top Hamas leader in the coastal enclave and killed more than 100 Palestinians, health officials said, as it intensified bombardments after losing 10 soldiers in militant attacks.

The fierce barrage from land, sea and air marked an escalation in Israel’s offensive against Hamas and allied militant factions, as the campaign entered its fourth week with no signs of a breakthrough in international efforts to broker a cease-fire.

An announcement by the Palestine Liberation Organization that Palestinian factions were ready for a 24-hour “humanitarian truce” was rejected by Hamas, reflecting the political divisions that have stymied attempts to end the fighting.

Towering flames and plumes of smoke rose from the power station after its fuel depot was shelled, forcing it to shut down and cutting electricity to Gaza City and wide areas of the densely populated coastal strip where 1.8 million Palestinians live.

“The power plant is finished,” said its director, Mohammed al Sharif.

Fathi Sheik Khalil, an official of the Gaza Energy Authority, said it would take at least a year to repair fire damage to turbines, fuel tanks and the control room. It was the third time since 2006 that Israeli forces have targeted the plant.

Even before the shutdown, Gaza residents had electricity for only a few hours a day because fighting had damaged power lines from Israel, which provides some supplementary power in return for payments.

The loss of electricity also threatened the water supply in Gaza, because power is needed to operate water pumps.

Israeli airstrikes targeted symbols of Hamas control, reducing to rubble the vacated home of Ismail Haniyeh, the group’s top leader in Gaza, and blasting the offices of Hamas’ Al Aqsa television and radio stations in a media building in downtown Gaza City. At least two mosques and government offices were also hit.

“My house is not more valuable than the house of any other Gazan, and destroying stones will not break our determination and resistance,” Haniyeh said in a statement. “We will resist until freedom.”

Palestinian and Hamas flags, along with a framed portrait of Haniyeh, were placed on the debris of his home.

The army said it had struck more than 70 targets, including four weapons storage sites hidden in mosques, and the Hamas TV and radio stations, which it said had been used to broadcast messages from the group’s military wing “to incite Palestinians against Israel and transmit orders and messages to Hamas operatives.”

The Palestinian death toll climbed beyond 1,100, according to health officials, as fresh strikes were reported on homes, some of which the army asserted had been used as “command and control centers” by Hamas militants.

At least seven people were killed in shelling of the Jabalya refugee camp, the largest in the Gaza Strip, and others were feared buried under collapsed homes, according to local reports.

The house of the mayor of al Bureij refugee camp was struck, and five bodies were pulled from the rubble, including those of the mayor, his 70-year-old father and three relatives, medical officials said.

In the southern town of Rafah, seven members of the extended Abu Zeid family, including four women and a child, were killed when their home was hit, and five members of the Duheir family died in a strike on their house, according to local reports.

In Khan Yunis in the central Gaza Strip, five members of the Najjar family were killed when their home was shelled, medical officials said.

The stepped-up shelling and airstrikes followed the deaths of 10 Israeli soldiers on Monday.

Four were killed in a mortar strike on an army staging area near Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, another was killed in Gaza by an anti-tank rocket fired at a military bulldozer, and five more died when Hamas gunmen tunneled into Israel and sneaked into a fortified military lookout post. Footage from a video distributed by Hamas shows the gunmen making their way into the Israeli position, shooting a soldier in the courtyard and trying to seize his body before fleeing, apparently under fire.

The military delayed announcement of the deaths of the five soldiers in the tunnel attack until Tuesday morning, apparently to allow for notification of their families. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to continue the offensive in Gaza until Israeli forces destroy networks of Hamas tunnels, some of which lead across the border into Israel.

A total of 53 Israeli soldiers have died in the campaign, along with two Israeli civilians and a Thai laborer killed by rocket and mortar strikes in Israel.

The difficulty of negotiating a cease-fire was made clear in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Tuesday when leaders of the PLO, headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, announced that Palestinian factions were ready for a 24-hour humanitarian cease-fire and would favorably consider a United Nations proposal to extend the truce for 72 hours.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, the PLO secretary-general, said that following consultations with Hamas and the militant Islamic Jihad group, it was agreed to send a unified Palestinian delegation to Cairo for truce talks “under the PLO umbrella.”

But Hamas, whose relations with Abbas have been strained despite a reconciliation accord reached in June with his mainstream Fatah faction, denied that it had accepted any cease-fire initiative.

“We will consider a cease-fire when Israel commits to it with international guarantees,” said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman.