As John Kerry pushes for ceasefire, violence flares in West Bank
As more violence erupts between Israelis and Palestinians, John Kerry piles the pressure on regional leaders to help secure Gaza ceasefire
US Secretary of State John Kerry pressed regional leaders to nail down a Gaza ceasefire yesterday as the civilian death toll soared, and further violence flared between Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem.
Mediators hope any truce in the Gaza Strip can coincide with a Muslim festival that starts next week, and are looking to overcome seemingly irreconcilable demands from Israel and Hamas-led Islamist fighters, locked in conflict since July 8.
As the diplomacy continued, so did the fighting.
Gaza officials said Israeli strikes killed 33 people yesterday, including the head of media operations for Hamas ally Islamic Jihad and his son. They put the number of Palestinian deaths in 18 days of conflict at 822, most of them civilians.
Militants fired a barrage of rockets out of Gaza, triggering sirens across much of southern and central Israel, including at the country's main airport. No injuries were reported, with the Iron Dome interceptor system knocking out many of the missiles.
The Gaza turmoil stoked tensions in the nearby occupied West Bank, where US-backed Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas governs in uneasy coordination with Israel.
Medics said five Palestinians were killed in separate incidents near the cities of Nablus and Hebron, including one shooting that witnesses blamed on an apparent Jewish settler.
On Thursday night, 10,000 demonstrators marched in solidarity with Gaza near the Palestinian administrative capital Ramallah - a scale recalling mass revolts of the past. Protesters surged against an Israeli army checkpoint, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, and Palestinian medics said one person was shot dead and 200 wounded when troops opened fire.
Israel said an army reservist was killed in Gaza yesterday, bringing to 34 the number of soldiers lost in a ground advance it says aims to destroy dozens of cross-border tunnels used by Hamas to threaten its southern farming villages and army bases.
It also announced that a soldier unaccounted for after an ambush in Gaza six days ago was definitely dead, although his body had not been recovered. Hamas said on Sunday it had captured the man, but did not release a photograph of him.
Three civilians have also been killed in Israel by rockets from Gaza - the kind of attack that surged last month amid Hamas anger at a crackdown on its activists in the West Bank, prompting the July 8 launch of the Israeli offensive.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his security cabinet yesterday to discuss a limited humanitarian truce under which Palestinian movement would be freed up to allow in aid and for the dead and wounded to be recovered.
A Palestinian official close to the negotiations said Turkey and Qatar had proposed a seven-day halt to the fighting, which had been relayed to Israel by Kerry while Hamas considered it.
An Israeli official acknowledged that the proposal had been received, but said any decision by the Netanyahu government would probably come after Hamas had delivered its own response.
Israel insists that, even if such a ceasefire is agreed, its army will continue digging up tunnels along Gaza's eastern frontier, a mission that could take between one and two weeks.
Netanyahu said a truce should also lead to the eventual stripping of Gaza's rocket arsenals - something Hamas rules out.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal on Wednesday voiced support for a humanitarian truce, but only if Israel eased restrictions on Gaza's 1.8 million people. Hamas wants Egypt to open up its border with Gaza, too, and demands that Israel release hundreds of prisoners rounded up in the West Bank last month following the kidnap and killing of three Jewish seminary students.
Such concessions appear unlikely, however, as both Israel and Egypt consider Hamas a security threat.
One Cairo official said next week's Eid ul-Fitr festival, which concludes Ramadan, was a possible date for a truce. But US officials were circumspect on progress made by Kerry.
"Secretary Kerry has been on the phone all morning, and he will remain in close touch with leaders in the region as he continues work on achieving a ceasefire," said a senior US State Department official in Cairo.