Israel pounds Gaza despite international peace efforts

Palestinians look at the remains of a mosque, which police said was hit in an Israeli air strike,...

Palestinians look at the remains of a mosque, which police said was hit in an Israeli air strike, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip July 22, 2014. (REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell, Reuters

, Last Updated: 11:50 AM ET

GAZA/JERUSALEM - Israel pounded targets across the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, saying no ceasefire was near as top U.S. and United Nations diplomats pursued talks on halting the fighting that has claimed more than 600 lives.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held discussions in neighbouring Egypt, while U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv and planned to see the Palestinian prime minister in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday.

However, there was no let-up in the fighting around Gaza, with plumes of black smoke spiralling into the sky, and Israeli shells raining down on the coastal Palestinian enclave.

Hamas, the dominant group in the Gaza Strip, and its allies fired more rockets into Israel, triggering sirens in Tel Aviv. One hit a town on the fringes of Ben-Gurion International Airport, lightly injuring two people, officials said.

Israel launched its offensive on July 8 to halt missile salvoes out of Gaza by Hamas, which was angered by a crackdown on its supporters in the occupied West Bank and suffering economic hardship because of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

"A ceasefire is not near," said Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, viewed as the most dovish member of Netanyahu's inner security cabinet. "I see no light at the end of the tunnel," she told Israel's Army Radio.

Dispatched by U.S. President Barack Obama to the Middle East to seek a ceasefire, Kerry held talks on Tuesday with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri.

"There is a framework ... to end the violence and that framework is the Egyptian initiative," he told a joint news conference with Shukri. "For the sake of thousands of innocent families whose lives have been shaken and destroyed by this conflict, on all sides, we hope we can get there as soon as possible."

Egypt was key to securing an end to a previous bout of Gaza fighting in 2012, but the country's new leadership is openly hostile to Hamas, possibly complicating the negotiations.

"We hope (Kerry's) visit will result in a ceasefire that provides the necessary security for the Palestinian people and that we can commence to address the medium and long-term issues related to Gaza," Shukri said.

With the conflict entering its third week, the Palestinian death toll rose to 613, including nearly 100 children and many other civilians, Gaza health officials said.

The Israeli military said it had killed 183 militants.


Palestinians evacuate a building after what witnesses said were warning Israeli air strikes next to their homes in Gaza City July 22, 2014. (REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly)

Israel's casualties also mounted, with the military announcing the deaths of two more soldiers, bringing the number of army fatalities to 27 - almost three times as many as were killed in the last ground invasion of Gaza, in a 2008-2009 war.

Two Israeli civilians have also been killed by Palestinian rocket fire into Israel.

Addressing reporters, with Netanyahu at his side, Ban said: "My message to Israelis and Palestinians is the same: Stop fighting. Start talking. And take on the root causes of the conflict, so we are not back to the same situation in another six months or a year."

Kerry has said the United States would provide $47 million in humanitarian aid for the Gaza Strip. He plans to stay in Cairo until Wednesday morning but has no set departure date from the region.

An Egyptian official who attended some of Kerry's meetings said Ban was working toward reaching a humanitarian truce, perhaps lasting for several days, to get aid into the territory. "The sensitivities between Egypt and Hamas are what is halting a final inclusive ceasefire deal," the official said.

DEMANDS

With Israeli shells and bombs hitting Gaza day and night, thousands of people have fled districts close to the border. The main U.N. agency in Gaza, UNWRA, said almost 102,000 people had taken shelter in 69 of its schools.

Israel has signalled it is in no hurry to achieve a truce before reaching its goal of crippling Hamas's militant infrastructure, including rocket arsenals and networks of tunnels threatening Israelis living along the Gaza frontier.

Hamas has said it will not cease hostilities until its demands are met, including that Israel and Egypt lift their blockade of Gaza and its 1.8 million people, and that Israel release several hundred Palestinians detained during a search last month for three Jewish teenagers later found dead.


An Israeli soldier looks on at a staging area outside the northern Gaza Strip July 21, 2014. (REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

Israel blamed the killings on Hamas, and their deaths, along with the revenge slaying of a Palestinian teen, were factors in a flare-up of violence along the Israel-Gaza border last month that escalated into the current fighting.

"The world must understand that Gaza has decided to end the blockade by its blood and its heroism," deputy Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a televised address on Monday.

Livni said the Hamas demands were unacceptable to both Israel and Egypt.

In Israel, the military said it had identified the remains of six soldiers killed in an attack on their armoured vehicle in Gaza on Sunday and was trying to identify the seventh.

Prompting widespread celebrations in Gaza, Hamas's armed wing announced on Sunday that it had captured a soldier. It displayed a photo ID and army serial number of the man, but did not show any image of him in their hands.

The Israeli military believes it was impossible for anyone to have survived the direct hit on the armoured vehicle in which the missing man was travelling.

Israel has agreed to mass releases of Palestinian prisoners in the past to secure the freedom of captured soldiers, or even for the return of the bodies of its citizens.


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