GAZA CITY, Palestine: Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal Wednesday stuck firmly to Palestinian demands to end a blockade on Gaza in exchange for a truce, as international efforts to halt the violence made only slow progress.
Meshaal said Hamas would accept a temporary truce to allow humanitarian relief into the battered coastal territory but stressed his group would keep fighting against an Israeli offensive that has claimed nearly 700 Palestinian lives and would not agree to a more lasting cease-fire 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,” he told a news conference in Qatar.
He said that any more permanent cease-fire could only come about after the blockade on Gaza was lifted and could only be implemented after it had been fully negotiated.
“Everyone wanted us to accept a cease-fire and then negotiate for our rights; we reject this and we reject it again today,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reported only modest progress in efforts to end fighting that has so far killed more than 680 Palestinians, 31 Israeli soldiers and three civilians.
Kerry flew into Tel Aviv after a Hamas rocket hit near the airport the day before, reflecting his determination to achieve a cease-fire.
He met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after earlier talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, who is also in the region. But U.S. officials have downplayed expectations for an immediate, lasting truce. In Jerusalem, Kerry said that negotiations toward a cease-fire were making some progress as he met for a second time this week with Ban. “We certainly have made steps forward,” Kerry said. “There’s still work to be done.”
Israel, meanwhile, sought to convince U.S. and European carriers to restore commercial flights to Tel Aviv after some suspended services, insisting its main airport there was safe despite being targeted by Palestinian rockets.
Israeli authorities emphasized the success of the Iron Dome interceptor system in protecting Ben Gurion Airport but said foreign airlines could use an alternative airport deep in its southern desert.
About 30 foreign airlines have suspended flights to Ben Gurion. Three of them were American, acting in accordance with Tuesday’s FAA ban, which was extended by 24 hours Wednesday. Turkish Airlines also extended suspension of its flights for another 24 hours.
The FAA was responding to a Palestinian rocket that struck a building 2 km from the airport. Israel said the damage was from debris left by a rocket its Iron Dome system had shot down.
“Our airport is safe. Our airport is secure. And we hope the American carriers will be flying to Israel soon,” Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said in an interview on MSNBC.
However, most European airlines have followed suit, sharply reducing traffic through Ben Gurion, a midsized airport that normally bustles during the summer.
Israeli officials described the FAA notice as too hasty and affected by international jitters over the shooting down last week of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine.
On the ground, meanwhile, Israeli troops backed by tanks and aerial drones clashed with Hamas fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles on the outskirts of Khan Younis, killing at least eight militants, a Palestinian health official said.
The Palestinian Red Crescent was trying to evacuate some 250 people from the area, which had been pummeled by airstrikes and tank shelling since the early morning.
Hundreds of residents of eastern Khan Younis were seen fleeing their homes as the battle unfolded, flooding into the streets with what few belongings they could carry, many with children in tow. They said they were seeking shelter in nearby U.N. schools.
“The airplanes and airstrikes are all around us,” said Aziza Msabah, a Khan Younis resident. “They are hitting the houses, which are collapsing upon us.”
Further north, in the Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza City, which saw intense fighting earlier this week, an airstrike demolished a home, killing 30-year-old journalist Abdel-Rahman Abu Hean, his grandfather Hasan and his nephew Osama.
Israel also struck Gaza City’s Al-Wafa hospital, which the military says houses a Hamas command center. Basman Ashi, the medical center’s director, said all 97 patients and staff were evacuated following Israeli warnings and that no one was hurt in the attack.
Israel said five more of its soldiers were killed, bringing the military’s death toll to 32. Two Israeli civilians and a foreign worker have also been killed in 15 days of fighting.
As the Gaza death toll mounted, a 34-year-old Palestinian man was killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers near Bethlehem in the West Bank, doctors said, a potentially ominous development in an area that has so far been relatively quiet.