BEIRUT: Efforts to stop a deadly Israeli assault on Gaza intensified Monday evening as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry touched down in Cairo to try and hammer out a cease-fire deal.
Despite growing calls for a halt to two weeks of fighting, the violence continued to rage as Palestinian officials announced that the death toll in Gaza had topped 550.
Kerry will meet with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Egyptian officials to try and draw up a cease-fire proposal. Kerry plans to stay in Cairo until Wednesday morning and has no currently scheduled end to his trip, which may also entail talks with officials from Qatar. The Gulf state has relatively close ties to Hamas and hosts its leader Khaled Meshaal.
Speaking as Kerry flew to Cairo, senior U.S. officials stressed the difficulty of ending the conflict, noting that Egypt’s current government has poorer ties with Hamas than its predecessor led by Mohammad Morsi.
“Our goal is to achieve a cessation of hostilities as soon as possible,” one senior State Department official said. “We don’t expect it will be easy, though. This is a very complicated dynamic.”
Egypt had presented a cease-fire plan last week, which Israel accepted but Hamas rejected, saying it had not been consulted.
Meshaal met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas earlier Monday, with signs emerging that they had devised an amended truce initiative. Al-Mayadeen TV reported that a senior Palestinian intelligence chief traveled from Doha to Cairo Monday to present the revised proposal to negotiators there.
The details of the new proposal had not been announced, but Palestinian officials told Mayadeen that it would include an end to the Israeli ground offensive and air assaults on Gaza, as well as stopping rocket fire from Palestinian territory and lifting of the blockade.
Determined efforts to secure a truce came with President Barack Obama saying the United States was working for an “immediate” cease-fire as the White House called on Israel to do more to protect Palestinian civilians.
While Israel has the right to defend itself against a barrage of Hamas rockets launched from the Gaza Strip, Washington has “serious concerns about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives,” Obama said.
“That is why it now has to be our focus and the focus of the international community to bring about a cease-fire that ends the fighting and that can stop the deaths of innocent civilians, both in Gaza and in Israel,” he said.
The death toll in Gaza rose to 572 Monday following the bloodiest day in the Palestinian enclave since 2009 where Israel is pressing a punishing military operation.
And the Israeli army said another seven soldiers had been killed in fighting in Gaza, raising the overall Israeli death toll to 27, all but two of them soldiers.
Gaza emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said airstrikes and shelling killed 56 people across the enclave Monday, and another 68 bodies were pulled from the rubble in areas hit by heavy fighting a day earlier.
The army also said its troops had killed “more than 10 militants” who had infiltrated southern Israel through two tunnels, sparking a firefight that reportedly wounded several soldiers. Militants killed inside Israel are not included in Qudra’s Gaza toll.Of the 55 people killed Monday, around a third of them were children, Qudra said. Seven children were among nine dead in an air raid on a house in Rafah, and another four children were killed in another strike on a house in Gaza City that killed nine people.
A nighttime airstrike on a residential tower block in Gaza City killed 11 people, including five children, Qudra said, and a simultaneous strike in the central Strip killed another.
And Israeli tank shells slammed into a hospital in Deir al-Balah, killing four people, among them doctors, Qudra added, indicating at least 70 people were wounded.
Of the 68 bodies recovered Monday, 13 were from Shejaiya, hiking the death toll from a blistering Sunday attack to 74. Qudra said the vast majority were women, children and elderly.
So far, Palestinian figures show 572 Gazans have been killed and more than 3,350 wounded since the start of the Israeli campaign started.
The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees said the number of people seeking refuge at its sites has soared to over 100,000.