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Smoke and fire from the explosion of an Israeli strike rise over Gaza City, Gaza Strip, on July 22, as Israeli air strikes pummeled a wide range of locations along the coastal area and diplomatic efforts intensified to end the two-week war. (AP)
Gaza toll tops 600, Israeli losses at 29 Violence flares in West Bank

GAZA/JERUSALEM, July 22, (Agencies): Israel pounded targets across the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, saying no ceasefire was near as top US and United Nations diplomats pursued talks on halting the fighting that has claimed more than 600 lives. US Secretary of State John Kerry held discussions in neighbouring Egypt, while UN 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. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned US carriers from flying to or from Ben-Gurion International Airport, after a rocket fired from Gaza struck near the airport’s fringes, injuring two people.
 
European airlines including Germany’s Lufthansa, Air-France and Dutch airline KLM said they were halting flights there too. Israel’s flagship carrier El Al continued flights as usual. Israel launched its offensive on July 8 to halt missile salvoes out of the Gaza Strip by Hamas, the dominant group in the coastal territory, 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 US 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,” Kerry said at a 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 616, including nearly 100 children and many other civilians, Gaza health officials said.
The latest strikes killed a six-month-old infant and a 24-year-old Palestinian in northern Gaza, in addition to a Palestinian bombed on a motorcycle elsewhere in the territory, Palestinian health officials said.
The Israeli military said it had killed 183 militants.
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.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Western-backed Fatah movement also proposed a formula for ending the fighting, calling for an immediate ceasefire followed by five days of negotaitions, Palestinian official Azzam al-Ahmed said in Cairo.
With Israeli shells and bombs hitting Gaza day and night, thousands of people have fled districts close to the border. The main UN agency in Gaza, UNWRA, said almost 102,000 people had taken shelter in 69 of its schools.
UNRWA said it found rockets hidden in a vacant Gaza school near two buildings housing refugees who have fled, in the second such instance of militants accused of storing weaponry in a school during the latest offensive.
 
An UNRWA statement said staff were removed from the building where the rockets were found adding that it “strongly and unequivocally condemns the group or groups responsible.”
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.
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.
 
Tragic
The Saudi cabinet has expressed concerns over the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza Strip due to the continuing Israeli war on the Palestinian territory.
In a statement issued following a meeting held late Monday, the Cabinet warned about “the tragic situation in Gaza Strip and occupied territories due to the Israeli brutal aggression and the war crimes it has committed against the Palestinian unarmed people.” It reiterated Saudi Arabia’s call for the world community to undertake its responsibility to protect the Palestinian people and confront the genocide being committed by Israel against them.
 
The cabinet welcomed the Arab Foreign Minister’s resolutions issued in a statement after an extraordinary meeting which they held at the Arab League headquarters, underscoring the importance of the world community move to protect the Palestinian people against grievance and aggression.
Palestinian civilians in densely-populated Gaza have no place to hide from Israel’s military offensive and children are paying the heaviest price, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
“There is literally no safe place for civilians,” Jens Laerke, spokesman of the UN Office for Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), told a news briefing in Geneva.
More than 500 people have been killed in the coastal enclave which has an estimated 4,500 people per square kilometer, Laerke said. The priority for aid agencies was protecting civilians and evacuating and treating the wounded.
 
Nearly 500 homes have been destroyed by Israeli air strikes and 100,000 people have sought shelter in schools of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), where they need food, water and mattresses, he said.
Israel began air strikes on the coastal strip on July 8, saying it wanted to halt missile fire out of Gaza by Hamas militants, and launched a ground offensive last Thursday. Israel pounded targets across the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, dashing hopes of a pause in the fighting. Hamas rejected an Egyptian ceasefire proposal last week.
 
Twenty-nine Israelis, 27 of them soldiers, have died.
But the overwhelming majority of people killed so far in the conflict are Palestinians, including 121 Gaza children under age 18 who make up one-third of the total civilian casualties, Juliette Touma of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said.
More than 900 Palestinian children are also reported to have been injured, according to UNICEF.
“According to an assessment by aid workers on ground at least 107,000 children need psycho-social support for the trauma they are experiencing such as death, injury or loss of their homes,” Laerke said.
Over 1.2 million people in the enclave have no water or only limited access to water as power networks have been damaged or lack fuel for generators, he said.
 
“In addition, we do have reports of sewage flooding which is a threat to public health,” he said.
The World Food Programme (WFP) has distributed emergency food rations and food vouchers to more than 90,000 people so far during the conflict, spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said.
“Ready to eat food stocks are running low in Gaza given the conflict has lasted two weeks and the needs are increasing,” she said.
Supplies will be bought locally and also airlifted from Dubai.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said that 18 health facilities in Gaza have been damaged, including three hospitals.
“There are critical concerns with hospital supplies, as both medicines and medical disposables are in serious shortage, both in ministry of health and ngo hospitals, due to the large number of casualties and serious shortages even before the escalation of violence,” WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said.
 
Message
‘Residents stay in your homes! Do not go outside!’ read the text message sent at dawn to the Israelis living on a kibbutz near the Gaza border, as soldiers searched the grounds for Palestinian gunmen.
While the Nir Am kibbutz was under lockdown on Monday, a deadly battle ensued between the Israeli troops and a squad of Gaza militants, who had tunnelled their way across the border and emerged about a mile away from the farm community.
Israel said it killed 10 gunmen in the battle. The military said some were wearing Israeli army uniform and were equipped with explosive belts. Four Israeli soldiers, including the commanding officer, died in the fight.
 
“The threat of a mortar bomb is nothing compared to a militant force of 10 men coming into our community to carry out a massacre,” said Shaike Shaked, one of the founders of a nearby Israeli africultural community, Netiv Haasara.
Three days ago, Shaked said, a tunnel opening was discovered 500 meters from his home, which has been hit twice by Palestinian rockets in the past few years.
The buzz of Israeli drones and non-stop Israeli artillery shells fired into Gaza sounded as his wife bounced their 18-month-old grandson on a trampoline in their front yard.
Gaza’s tower blocks can be seen from Netiv Haasara’s, flowering gardens and the fields where Shaked grows tomatoes.
 
Like other farming villages on the Gaza border, it has drawn youngsters seeking escape from bustling city life in pursuit of a slow quiet lifestyle in the remote, pastoral kibbutzim. But since July 8, when Israel launched an offensive aimed at destroying militants’ rocket stockpiles and secret tunnel network, most of the families have abandoned the border lands. Israel has dubbed the network of subterranean passages “Underground Gaza”, which it says serves as Hamas command bunkers and houses rocket-launch silos. The military says it has discovered 23 tunnels and destroyed six so far. Some of those cement-fortified burrows reached into Israel and since the offensive began, Palestinian gunmen have tried to cross into Israel at least four times.
 
“We’re already used to the rockets (fired from Gaza), but the tunnels are new,” said Amit Bing, 22, who was born in the Nir Am. “We knew about them, but we never believed it would reach so close,” she said.
Outside her home, sleeping Israeli troops were stretched across the lawn. “There are no families here anymore, they have all left,” said Bing’s neighbour, Salit Ben-Abu, 25. Media reports suggest the military has just one dedicated tunnel-hunting unit, code named “Ferrets”, within the specialised regiment of its engineering corps — potentially no more than a few dozen commandos equipped with breathing apparatus, attack dogs and scouting robots.
 
The Israeli chief military spokesman, Brig-Gen Motti Almoz, formerly an anti-tunnel officer in the Engineering Corps., said each tunnel took between one to three years to build and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. “The fighters who use these tunnels are the elite,” Almoz told Reuters, “You don’t carry out a tunnel attack in order to come back having killed just a couple of Jews. If Hamas wants to do that, it can fire an anti-tank rocket across the border.” Hamas armed wing, Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, said it “decisively confirms these (tunnel) operations as a retaliation for the blood of our people’s martyrs”. Walking her dog through the empty paths of the nearby kibbutz Holit, 25-year-old Renana said the situation was “very scary”. A handful of combat vests were thrown on the grass outside, where a couple of soldiers were lying in the shade.
 
A few weeks ago she would have walked with her dog outside the fenced perimeter of the kibbutz. “Now we have to call kibbutz security every time we have to leave,” she said. TV channel Al-Jazeera evacuated its bureau in Gaza when it came under fire on Tuesday, the Qatar-based network said. Two warning shots were fired at the 11-storey Jalaa building in central Gaza City, housing local and international media as well as private apartments, an AFP correspondent reported. “Two very precise shots were fired straight into our building,” said Al-Jazeera reporter in Gaza Stefanie Dekker, according to the channel’s English-language website.
 
The empty missiles were directed at Al-Jazeera’s office, prompting journalists, along with a number of families who had sought refuge there from Sunday’s fighting in Shejaiya, to leave. “We came here from Shejaiya,” said a woman standing outside with three female relatives, nine children and an elderly man. “There doesn’t seem to be anywhere that is safe.” On the streets there were very few people about and the only shops doing business were those selling fruit and vegetables. Elsewhere in the city, rescue teams were seen outside the 10-storey Salaam tower block which was hit a day earlier, causing the top five floors to cave in on themselves. Towards the top, a dusty limb could be seen sticking out from under a large piece of rubble, which had trickles of dried blood on it.
 
The pan-Arab Al-Jazeera channel has offered extensive coverage from Gaza since Israel began its military campaign against the Hamas-controlled coastal strip on July 8. The channel “holds Israel responsible for the safety of its team in Gaza after its bureau came under fire,” Al-Jazeera Arabic-language channel said. Ynet news website quoted Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman as saying on Monday that Al-Jazeera “stands at the heart of the propaganda of terrorist organisations”. Al-Jazeera accused Lieberman of “direct incitement” against it. The channel is funded by gas-rich Qatar, which backs the Islamist Hamas movement.

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