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Gaza toll passes 330 as UN chief heads to region

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories -- Israeli air strikes pounded Gaza Saturday, taking the death toll from a 12-day bombardment to 337, as U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon headed to the region to join truce efforts.

His peace push came as Israel was poised to intensify a ground operation inside the besieged Palestinian territory it says is necessary to stop militants tunneling into the Jewish state.

Despite the pounding, Palestinian commandos succeeded in infiltrating Israel, sparking a deadly skirmish with an army patrol, as Gaza's bloodiest conflict since 2009 showed no signs of letting up.

The United States urged its Israeli ally to do more to limit the high civilian death toll from the operation, while supporting the Jewish state's right to defend itself.

President Barack Obama said Washington was “deeply concerned about the risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life.”

He added that Washington was “hopeful” that Israel would operate “in a way that minimizes civilian casualties.”

But Israeli army chief Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, said the army was “expanding the ground phase of the operation.”

“There will be moments of hardship,” he warned in a briefing to the military, anticipating further Israeli casualties.

Troops killed a Palestinian militant who tunneled into southern Israel but others managed to withdraw back into Gaza, an army statement said.

“Several terrorists infiltrated Israel through a tunnel from the central Gaza Strip,” it said, adding that they fired a machine gun and anti-tank missile at an army patrol.

Troops “returned fire, killing a terrorist and forcing the rest back into Gaza.”

Hamas's military wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, said its fighters had carried out the raid.

“The Qassam Brigades carried out an operation behind enemy lines,” it said in a statement. “Heavy fighting is ongoing with the forces of the occupation.”

Donkey Bomb

In a separate incident, the army said, militants had strapped explosives on to a donkey in an attempt to attack troops.

“Yesterday (Friday) evening, there was at least one such attempt, in which a donkey suspiciously began to approach forces,” it said.

“The forces engaged the donkey and it exploded at a safe distance.”

There have been three Israeli deaths so far since the July 8 start of the Operation Protective Edge campaign to stamp out rocket fire from Gaza.

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