Gaza death toll climbs as airlines shun Israel

A wounded Palestinian girl receives medical care.

Fighting in Gaza continued to rage yesterday — displacing thousands more Palestinians in the battered territory even as US Secretary of State John Kerry said indirect truce talks between Israel and Hamas had made some progress.

While pressing a 15-day-old offensive, Israel scrambled to contain economic damage from a halt of flights to Tel Aviv’s main airport by US and European airlines spooked by the long-range rocket salvoes of Hamas and other Gaza Strip guerrillas.

Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal called for a temporary truce to allow humanitarian relief into Gaza, but said his group would keep fighting against an Israeli offensive and would not agree to a more lasting ceasefire without full negotiation of terms.

“We are very interested to have a humanitarian truce as we did last Thursday. We need the calm for a few hours to evacuate the wounded and assist in the relief... This means a real truce backed by a real relief programme offered to the people of Gaza,” he said at a news conference in Qatar.

The leader of the Islamist group, which controls Gaza, asked for the international community to help bring medicine, fuel and other supplies into the territory.

However, he said that any more permanent ceasefire could only come about after Israel ended its siege, and could only be implemented after it had been fully negotiated.

Adding to pressure on Israel, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said there was “a strong possibility” that it was committing war crimes in Gaza, where 668 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have died in the fighting.

Israel denied the suggestion, stepping up the war of words and accusing Hamas of using fellow Gazans as human shields.

Kerry met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and was due to see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before returning to Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza and has mediated with Islamist Hamas.

“We have certainly made some steps forward. There is still work to be done,” said Kerry.on one of his most intensive regional visits since the peace negotiations he had brokered between Netanyahu and Abbas broke down in April.

Kerry has been working through Abbas, Egypt and other regional proxies as the United States, like Israel, shuns Hamas as a terrorist group. Hamas brushed off the US diplomat’s appeal, saying it would not hold fire without making gains.

Israel launched its offensive on July 8 to halt rocket salvoes by Hamas and its allies, which have struggled under an Israeli-Egyptian economic blockade on Gaza. After aerial and naval bombardment failed to quell the outgunned guerrillas, Israel poured ground forces into the Gaza Strip last Thursday, looking to knock out Hamas’s rocket stores and destroy a vast, underground network of tunnels.

Hamas and a smaller Gaza faction, Islamic Jihad, said they killed several Israeli soldiers in two separate ambushes yesterday.

Some 29 troops have been confirmed killed so far in the conflagration. Three civilians have also died in rocket attacks out of Gaza. The military says one of its soldiers is also missing and believes he might be dead.

Already hurt by mass tourist cancellations, Israel faced increased economic pressure after the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) took the rare step on Tuesday of banning flights to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport for at least 24 hours. Many other foreign carriers, on heightened alert after a Malaysian airliner was shot down over a combat zone in Ukraine last week, followed suit. Israeli carriers continued to operate.

The FAA action represented a public relations coup for Hamas, which is anxious to dent Israel’s global image. An Israeli official said Netanyahu had asked Kerry to help restore the US flights.

A US official said the Obama administration would not “overrule the FAA” on a security precaution but noted the ban would be reviewed after 24 hours. However, US carrier Delta Air Lines said it would extend its suspension of flights, as did Germany’s Lufthansa and Air Berlin.

Meanwhile, Palestinian medics said two worshippers were killed and 30 were wounded in an attack on a mosque in the densely-populated Zeitoun neighbourhood. In southern Abassan and Khuzaa villages, residents said they were besieged by Israeli snipers who wounded two Palestinians as they tried to emerge from hiding with white flags. Israeli tanks fired shells near ambulances, discouraging their approach to recover casualties, witnesses said.

In a move that could turn Abbas into the main Palestinian point person for any Gaza truce, his umbrella Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) formally supported core conditions set by the Hamas-led fighters.

These demands include the release of hundreds of Hamas supporters recently arrested in the nearby West Bank and an end to the Egyptian-Israeli blockade of Gaza, which has stymied the economy and made it near impossible for anyone to travel abroad.


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