ISRAELI troops battled Hamas militants near a southern Gaza Strip town yesterday, as efforts to broker a truce continued.
A United States diplomat claimed there had been progress in attempts to secure a ceasefire in a war that has so far killed more than 680 Palestinians and 31 Israelis. At least 149 of the Palestinians killed were children, according to the United Nations.
But neither side appeared close to backing down, after Palestinian rocket fire led several international airlines to cancel flights to Tel Aviv and Israeli troops clashed with Hamas fighters near the Gazan town of Khan Younis, forcing dozens of families to flee.
Israel has insisted it must curb the military capabilities of Hamas – a position that appears to have US support. Hamas has demanded the lifting of a crippling Israeli and Egyptian blockade on the poor coastal territory it has ruled since 2007.
US secretary of state John Kerry yesterday flew into Tel Aviv despite his country’s Federal Aviation Administration imposing a ban following a Hamas rocket strike near the airport the day before, reflecting his determination to achieve a ceasefire deal between the warring sides.
He later met Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu after earlier talks with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. But US officials have downplayed expectations of an immediate, lasting truce.
In Jerusalem, Mr Kerry said negotiations toward a Gaza ceasefire were making some progress, as he met Mr Ban for a second time this week.
Mr Kerry said: “We certainly have made steps forward. There’s still work to be done.”
White House deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken meanwhile said Hamas must be denied the ability to “rain down rockets on Israeli civilians”.
“One of the results, one would hope, of a ceasefire would be some form of demilitarisation so that this doesn’t continue, doesn’t repeat itself,” he said. “That needs to be the end result.”
On the ground, 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 has been pummelled by air strikes and tank shelling.
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 UN schools.
“The airplanes and air strikes are all around us,” Khan Younis resident Aziza Msabah said. “They are hitting the houses, which are collapsing upon us.”
Further north, in the Shijaiyah neighbourhood of Gaza City, which saw intense fighting earlier this week, an air strike demolished a home, killing 30-year-old journalist Abdul Rahman Abu Hean, his grandfather and nephew.
Meanwhile, a foreign worker in Israel was killed when a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed near the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon yesterday, police said.
Israel said two more of its soldiers had died in the conflict, bringing the military’s death toll to 29. Two Israeli civilians have been killed in 15 days of fighting.
In Jerusalem, 30,000 people attended the funeral of Max Steinberg, a 24-year-old from southern California serving in the Israeli military. Mr Steinberg was killed in an attack on an armoured personnel carrier on Sunday.
“I spoke with him a day and a half ago,” his mother, Evie Steinberg, told Israeli TV. “I said, ‘Are you afraid?’ He said, ‘No. I am afraid only for you’. He’s a hero.”