Despite international efforts to negotiate an end to the Israeli-Gaza conflict on Tuesday, Israel continued to strike at targets in the Gaza Strip, where the death toll rose to above 600.
In Egypt, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with the country’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri to discuss the fighting. Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sat down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, ahead of a planned meeting with the Palestinian prime minister in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday.
But there was no visible let-up in hostilities, as Israeli shells pounded targets within the Gaza Strip, sending plumes of black smoke into the air.
“A ceasefire is not near,” said Israeli 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.
Kerry, however, held out hope following his meeting with Shukri that an eventual ceasefire could be reached between Israel and the Islamist Palestinian group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
“There is a framework ... to end the violence and that framework is the Egyptian initiative,” Kerry said at a news conference. “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.
Mounting death toll
With the conflict, which began July 8, 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.
Ban reiterates calls to ‘stop fighting’
In Tel Aviv, Ban reiterated past calls for both sides of the conflict to lay down their arms, following talks with Netanyahu.
“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,” he said, with the Israeli prime minister standing at his side.
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 negotiations, Palestinian official Azzam al-Ahmed said in Cairo.
Meanwhile, thousands of people have fled their homes in Gaza. Almost 102,000 people have taken shelter at 69 UN-run schools in Gaza, according to the UNWRA, the United Nations agency that provides assistance to Palestinian refugees.
The 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.
A UNRWA statement said staff had been removed from the building where the weapons 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, however, 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.