President Barack Obama offered the help of the United States in negotiating a ceasefire to end escalating violence between Israel and Hamas.
His intervention came as world leaders warned of an urgent need to avoid another Israeli-Palestinian war that could engulf the fragile region.
In a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr Obama supported Israel’s efforts to defend itself against rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, but also called on both Israel and the Palestinians to protect civilians and restore calm.
The White House said the US was willing to “facilitate a cessation of hostilities,” potentially along the lines of a 2012 ceasefire that the US helped broker.
Mounting casualties and the growing prospect of an Israeli ground incursion in Gaza drew alarm at the United Nations.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told an emergency Security Council meeting that it is more urgent than ever to avoid another Israeli-Palestinian war that could engulf the entire region. He called on both sides to agree to a ceasefire.
“It is unacceptable for citizens on both sides to permanently live in fear of the next aerial attack,” he said.
More than 85 people have been killed, including dozens of civilians, since Israel began an offensive on Tuesday against the Hamas militant group in Gaza.
The offensive aims to put an end to unrelenting rocket fire from Gaza that has reached ever deeper into the Jewish state and intensified amid spiralling tensions over the killing of three Israeli teenagers and the apparent revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager.
The offer to help bring about a ceasefire could draw the US deeper into a conflict the US fears could destabilise the region, but precisely what role the US would play remains unclear.
The United States considers Hamas to be a terrorist organisation and has a policy barring contact with its leaders.
A senior Obama administration official said the policy has not changed but that other players in the Middle East could act as intermediaries, as was the case when Egypt and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worked to secure the November 2012 ceasefire. Egypt, Turkey or Qatar are all possibilities, said the official.
In the phone call, Mr Obama condemned the rockets and said Israel has the right to self-defence, the White House said.
Pro-Israel politicians in the US and the State Department have insisted that Hamas is to blame for the fresh round of conflict.
Mr Obama also raised his concerns about Tariq Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian-American teenager who was detained and apparently beaten by Israeli authorities.
The White House said: “The president expressed concern about the risk of further escalation and emphasised the need for all sides to do everything they can to protect the lives of civilians and restore calm. But he also urged both sides not to escalate the crisis.”
In a moment of drama at the UN, Israel’s ambassador suddenly played the piercing 15-second siren that warns Israelis to run to bomb shelters to escape rocket attacks to highlight the threat his country faces.
Ron Prosor told the council that Hamas is “intentionally and indiscriminately” threatening 3.5 million Israelis and “no nation, no people and no government could tolerate this.”
Palestinian UN envoy Riyad Mansour had no props for his appeal to the council “to stop the bleeding” and revive the Palestinians’ “dying hopes” for an end to the conflict and peace with freedom.
“I speak on behalf of the suffering and grieving Palestinian people, who are enduring yet another barrage of death, destruction, trauma and terror,” he said.
Diplomats said Jordan has circulated a press statement, which is not legally binding, for the Security Council’s consideration that would call for a ceasefire.
The draft calls for “immediate calm and ending the hostilities in Gaza including the launching of rocket attacks,” restoration of the 2012 ceasefire and resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations aimed at a comprehensive peace agreement and a two-state solution. It also calls for protection of civilians.