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Truce push as toll hits 548 ‘End blockade’

 GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories, July 21, (Agencies): World efforts to broker a ceasefire in war-torn Gaza gathered pace Monday as Israel pressed a blistering 14-day assault on the enclave, pushing the Palestinian death toll to 548.

As Washington and the United Nations demanded an “immediate ceasefire” in the battered Palestinian enclave, there was no let up in the Israeli offensive with another 31 Gazans killed in a series of strikes.
And Israel said troops killed 10 Hamas militants after they sneaked over the border through a network of tunnels that the army has been trying to destroy in an intensive four-day ground operation.
With growing concern over the number of civilian deaths, UN chief Ban Ki-moon arrived in Cairo for top-level talks on ending the hostilities, with US Secretary of State John Kerry also expected to fly in later Monday.
Following the deadliest day in Gaza since 2009, when at least 140 Palestinians were killed on Sunday, medics pulled another 68 bodies from the rubble early Monday, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said.
And 31 others were killed in a series of fresh strikes across the Gaza Strip.
In the latest bloodshed, tank-shelling on a hospital in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza killed four people, and a family of nine was killed in the southern city of Rafah, seven of them children, Qudra said.
As the diplomatic efforts gathered steam, hundreds of people could be seen flooding out of the northern town of Beit Hanun, a day after many thousands fled an intensive Israeli bombardment of the eastern Gaza City district of Shejaiya.
On Sunday, at least 72 people were killed in Shejaiya during a punishing Israeli operation which reduced much of the district to rubble and left charred bodies lying in the streets.
And an Israeli tank shell killed three more in the district on Monday.
Since the Israeli operation began on July 8, huge numbers of Gazans have fled their homes, with more than 85,000 people taking shelter in 67 schools run by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, a spokesman said.
By Monday morning, a UN school on the outskirts of Shejaiya was packed to overflowing with people seeking shelter, many sleeping in the corridors, an AFP correspondent said.
And in Gaza City’s Shifa hospital, several families could be seen sleeping in gardens in the hope they would be safe from the bombing.
Meanwhile, in southern Israel, the military said troops had killed “more than 10” Hamas militants who managed to cross the border through tunnels. It said there were “two terrorist squads,” one of which was hit by an air strike
Military radio said the second squad engaged in a fierce gunbattle with troops in which several soldiers were wounded, without giving further details.
On Sunday, 13 Israeli soldiers were killed inside Gaza, raising to 18 the total number of soldiers killed since a ground operation began late on Thursday.
That represented the army’s heaviest loss in eight years and left the Jewish state in mourning.
The attack was claimed by Hamas militants from its armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, which said it had carried out “an operation behind enemy lines in response to the massacre in Shejaiya”.
Late on Sunday, the Qassam Brigades claimed it had captured an Israeli soldier in a report that the army said it was checking, but which Israel’s UN ambassador said was untrue.
Meanwhile, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas held talks in Doha, pledging in their first meeting since the launch of Israel’s assault to work together for a ceasefire and to lift the blockade, officials said.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah offered his full backing to “Hamas’s strategy” in a telephone conversation with Meshaal, describing its conditions for ending the violence as “just”.
Hamas has so far rejected truce calls, insisting Israel meet a series of conditions before halting its fire — including an end to the eight-year blockade on Gaza and the release of scores of prisoners from Israeli jails.
Despite rising concern over the number of civilian casualties, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Hamas for using innocent civilians “as human shields” and insisted the military operation had “very strong support” from the international community.
Although Israel said Sunday it was expanding its ground operation to destroy cross-border tunnels, Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon suggested the mission could be accomplished within days.
There was no let-up in rocket and mortar fire by Gaza militants on Monday with 40 hitting Israel, one striking the greater Tel Aviv area, and another 11 shot down, the army said.
Meanwhile, Kuwait called on UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday to urge the international community to put an end to the Israeli “aggression” in Gaza which has claimed 508 lives.
The call came in a meeting between Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Sabah and Ban who arrived in Kuwait on Monday in the second leg of a regional tour aimed at pushing for a ceasefire in Gaza.
The UN chief was separately received by His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, the official KUNA news agency reported.
The foreign minister “renewed Kuwait’s support for the Palestinian people and condemned all Israeli acts of aggression,” KUNA said following the meeting.
“He called on the UN Secretary-General to urge the international community to shoulder responsibility to put an end to this dangerous aggression,” it said.
The foreign minister also reiterated Kuwait’s support for the Egyptian truce proposal which was rejected by Hamas for failing to meet its conditions.
The two officials also discussed developments in Syria and Iraq.
Kuwait, which holds the rotating presidency of the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), received Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal on Sunday and expressed support for the Palestinians. But the Gulf state also announced its backing for the Egyptian truce proposal.
In Doha, Ban urged Israel on Sunday to “exercise maximum restraint” and spare civilian lives in its campaign in Gaza.
He also condemned the “atrocious action” of Israel’s attack on Shejaiya, near Gaza City, where a blistering assault that started at dawn killed 62 people and wounded at least 250.
The top Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip signaled Monday that the Islamic militant group will not agree to an unconditional cease-fire with Israel, saying that the aim of the current battle is to break a 7-year-old blockade of the Palestinian territory.
Ismail Haniyeh’s comments came as UN chief Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State John Kerry headed to Cairo for the highest-level cease-fire efforts since Israel-Hamas fighting erupted July 8.
More than 540 Palestinians and 20 Israelis have been killed in the past two weeks of fighting.
The blockade was imposed by Israel and Egypt after Hamas overran Gaza in 2007. Over the past year, Egypt has further tightened restrictions, driving Hamas into a deep financial crisis.
Haniyeh said in a televised speech Monday that “we cannot go back, we cannot go back to the silent death” of the blockade.
He said all of Gaza’s 1.7 million residents shared this demand.
“Gaza has decided to end the blockade by its blood and by its courage,” he said. “This siege, this unjust siege, must be lifted.”
Arab Israelis clashed with police in the northern city of Nazareth on Monday, police said, at the end of a protest against Israel’s deadly military strikes in the Gaza Strip.
The clashes came as Nazareth and cities in the West Bank observed a general strike to mourn the victims of the Gaza conflict between Israel and Hamas — the bloodiest since 2009 — that has cost more than 500 Palestinian lives in two weeks.
Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said around 200 Arab Israelis in Nazareth clashed with security forces, who responded with water cannons and stun grenades, arresting 10 people after the 3,000-strong demonstration in Israel’s largest Arab city.
Demonstrators held up placards reading “Israeli army commits genocide in Gaza,” an AFP correspondent said.
The outburst of anger came after the bloodiest day of Israel’s two-week Gaza operation, when at least 140 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers were killed on Sunday.
Shops were shuttered across the West Bank and in Arab towns in Israel, as unions, nationalist and Islamist groups called for a general strike, a call supported by the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas on Sunday declared three days of mourning.
The PLO, which is dominated by Abbas’s Fatah party, also called for protests in the occupied West Bank, which were to take place later Monday.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah is backing the Palestinian “resistance” in Gaza to defeat Israel, the Shiite movement’s leader Hassan Nasrallah said on Monday.
Nasrallah told Hamas’ exiled chief Khaled Meshaal by telephone: “Hezbollah and the Lebanese resistance stand firmly on the side of the Intifada and the Palestinian people’s resistance, and support Hamas’ strategy and the just conditions it has set to end the conflict.”
Hamas is demanding Israel end its siege of Gaza and has called for the release of scores of prisoners from Israeli jails before it considers peace talks proposed by Egypt.
Nasrallah, meanwhile, expressed his “complete confidence in the resistance’s capacity to defend itself and to achieve a new victory in July”, a reference to Israel’s failure to crush Hezbollah in its July 2006 offensive against Lebanon.
In a separate phone call to Ramadan Abdallah Challah, secretary general of the Gaza’s second-biggest armed group, the Islamic Jihad, Nasrallah said: “The Lebanese resistance is willing to cooperate completely, in order to realise the goals of the Palestinian resistance, and to ensure the failure of the (Israeli) aggression.”
President Barack Obama called Monday for the international community to focus on ending the fighting in the Gaza Strip, as Secretary of State John Kerry headed to the Middle East to make a renewed push for a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel.
Voicing fresh concern about civilian casualties, Obama reaffirmed his belief that Israel has the right to defend itself against rockets being launched by Hamas into Israel. Yet he contended that Israel’s military action in Gaza had already done “significant damage” to the Hamas terrorist infrastructure and said he doesn’t want to see more civilians getting killed.
“We have serious concerns about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives,” Obama said. “And that is why it now has to be our focus and the focus of the international community to bring about a ceasefire that ends the fighting and can stop the deaths of innocent civilians, both in Gaza and in Israel.”
As Obama spoke from South Lawn of the White House, Kerry was flying to Cairo, where he planned to join diplomatic efforts to resume a truce that had been agreed to in November 2012. He will urge the militant Palestinian group to accept a cease-fire agreement offered by Egypt that would halt nearly two weeks of fighting. More than 500 Palestinians and 20 Israelis have been killed in that time.
The Obama administration, including Kerry, is sharpening its criticism of Hamas for its rocket attacks on Israel and other provocative acts, like tunneling under the border. It is also toning down an earlier rebuke of Israel for attacks on the Gaza Strip that have killed civilians, including children.
In a statement Sunday evening, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the US and international partners were “deeply concerned about the risk of further escalation, and the loss of more innocent life.”
Two Americans, Max Steinberg of California and Nissim Carmeli of Texas, who fought for the Israel Defense Forces were killed in fighting in the Gaza Strip. The State Department confirmed the names of the two US citizens Sunday night.
Cairo’s cease-fire plan is backed by the US and Israel. But Hamas has rejected the Egyptian plan and is relying on governments in Qatar and Turkey for an alternative proposal. Qatar and Turkey have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is also linked to Hamas but banned in Egypt.
Making the rounds of Sunday talk shows, Kerry said Hamas needs to recognize its own responsibility for the conflict.
“It’s ugly. War is ugly, and bad things are going to happen,” Kerry told ABC’s “This Week.”
Both Obama and Kerry have said Israel has a right to defend itself Kerry accused Hamas of attempting to sedate and kidnap Israelis through a network of tunnels that militants have used to stage cross-border raids.
He said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that Hamas must “step up and show a level of reasonableness, and they need to accept the offer of a cease-fire.”


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