Israel pounds Gaza despite peace efforts
GAZA/JERUSALEM — Israel pounded targets across the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, saying no ceasefire was near as top U.S. and U.N. diplomats pursued talks on halting fighting that has claimed more than 500 lives.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held talks in neighboring Egypt, while U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was due to arrive in Israel later in the day. Both have voiced alarm at mounting civilian casualties.
However, there was no let-up in the fighting around Gaza, with plumes of black smoke spiraling into the sky, and Israeli shells raining down on the coastal Palestinian enclave.
Hamas, the dominant group in the Gaza Strip, and its allies fired more rockets into Israel, triggering sirens in Tel Aviv. One hit a town on the fringes of Ben-Gurion International Airport, lightly injuring two people, officials said.
Israel launched its offensive on July 8 to halt missile salvoes out of Gaza by Hamas, 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 cease-fire is not near,” said Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, viewed as the most dovish member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner security cabinet.
“I see no light at the end of the tunnel,” she told Israel’s Army Radio.
The Israeli military said it had identified the remains of six soldiers killed in an attack on their armored vehicle in Gaza on Sunday and was trying to identify the seventh.
Sparking widespread celebrations in Gaza, Hamas’ 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 army APC.
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.
With the conflict entering its third week, the Palestinian death toll rose to 546, including nearly 100 children and many other civilians, Gaza 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.
Palestinian militants in Gaza said they wanted a five-hour cease-fire on Tuesday to allow residents to emerge from their homes and seek vital supplies. Israel rejected the request for security reasons, a defense official said.
Kerry in Egypt
Dispatched by U.S. President Barack Obama to the Middle East to seek a ceasefire, Kerry held talks on Tuesday in Cairo with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri.
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, potentially complicating the negotiations.
“We hope (Kerry’s) visit will result in a cease-fire 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.
Israel has signaled 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.
Kerry said the United States would provide $47 million in humanitarian aid for Gaza. Washington is “deeply concerned about the consequences of Israel’s appropriate and legitimate effort to defend itself,” Kerry said. “No country can stand by when rockets are attacking it.”