GAZA/OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israel pounded targets across the Gaza Strip Tuesday, saying no cease-fire was near as top U.S. and United Nations diplomats pursued talks on halting the fighting that has claimed more than 600 lives.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held discussions in neighboring Egypt, while U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv and planned to see the Palestinian prime minister in the occupied West Bank Wednesday.
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 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.
The Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, confirmed Tuesday that it had destroyed an Israeli armor personnel carrier in the Toufah neighborhood, killing the soldiers inside. Since the ground offensive started, Hamas said it had destroyed 36 Israeli military vehicles and its snipers had killed 11 Israeli soldiers, according to Al-Quds TV.
"A cease-fire is not near," said Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, viewed as the most dovish member of Netanyahu's inner security cabinet. "I see no light at the end of the tunnel," she told Israel's Army Radio.
Dispatched by U.S. President Barack Obama to the Middle East to seek a cease-fire, Kerry held talks Tuesday with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri.
"There is a framework ... to end the violence and that framework is the Egyptian initiative," he told a joint news conference with Shukri. "For the sake of thousands of innocent families whose lives have been shaken and destroyed by this conflict, on all sides, we hope we can get there as soon as possible."
With the conflict entering its third week, the Palestinian death toll rose to at least 620, mostly civilians, including nearly 100 children, Gaza health officials said.
The Israeli military said it had killed 183 militants.
Al-Jazeera accused Israel Tuesday of attacking its station’s office in Gaza. According to a reporter from the channel, the office was evacuated after being attacked by what he described as intentional, heavy Israeli gunfire.
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.
Addressing reporters, with Netanyahu at his side, Ban said: "My message to Israelis and Palestinians is the same: Stop fighting. Start talking. And take on the root causes of the conflict, so we are not back to the same situation in another six months or a year."
Kerry has said the United States would provide $47 million in humanitarian aid for the Gaza Strip. He plans to stay in Cairo until Wednesday morning but has no set departure date from the region.
An Egyptian official who attended some of Kerry's meetings said Ban was working toward reaching a humanitarian truce, perhaps lasting for several days, to get aid into the territory."
With Israeli shells and bombs hitting Gaza day and night, thousands of people have fled districts close to the border. The main U.N. agency in Gaza, UNWRA, said almost 102,000 people had taken shelter in 69 of its schools.
Israel has signaled it is in no hurry to achieve a truce before reaching its goal of crippling Hamas' 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 Monday.
Livni said the Hamas demands were unacceptable to both Israel and Egypt.
In Israel, the military said it had identified the remains of six soldiers killed in an attack on their armored vehicle in Gaza Sunday and was trying to identify the seventh.
Prompting widespread celebrations in Gaza, Hamas' armed wing announced 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 armored vehicle in which the missing man was traveling.