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Gaza Death Toll Climbs As Kerry Pushes For Truce

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An Israeli tank fires a 155mm shell towards targets in the Gaza Strip from their position near Israel's border with the Palestinian enclave on July 23, 2014. (DAVID BUIMOVITCH/AFP/Getty Images) | DAVID BUIMOVITCH via Getty Images
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* Israeli tank fire kills 16 Palestinians before dawn

* Kerry reports progress in ceasefire talks; Israel is mum

* U.S. extends ban on U.S. flights to Israel for second day

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Allyn Fisher-Ilan

GAZA/JERUSALEM, July 24 (Reuters) - The death toll in Gaza topped 700 on Thursday as Israeli tank fire before dawn killed 16 people in the Hamas-dominated coastal territory, including six members of the same family, Palestinian health officials said.

The continued violence defied world efforts to achieve a ceasefire between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas after 17 days of fighting, though some officials voiced optimism that a limited truce may be within reach.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, flying back from Israel to Cairo for more talks with Egyptian mediators, reported some progress in ceasefire talks.

An Egyptian official said on Wednesday a humanitarian truce may go into effect by the weekend, in time for the Eid al-Fitr festival, Islam's biggest annual celebration that follows the fasting month of Ramadan.

However, a senior U.S. official said this was a U.S. hope but a truce was by no means locked in.

"It would not be accurate to say that we expect a ceasefire by the weekend," said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We are continuing to work on it, but it is not set at this point."

Israel's security cabinet released no decision after meeting late into the night on a proposed humanitarian truce under which fighting would cease immediately but negotiations for terms for an extended deal would begin only in several days' time.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, speaking in Qatar, said his fighters had made gains against Israel and expressed support for a humanitarian truce, but only if Israel eased restrictions on Gaza's 1.8 million Palestinians.

"Let's agree first on the demands and on implementing them and then we can agree on the zero hour for a ceasefire ... We will not accept any proposal that does not lift the blockade ... We do not desire war and we do not want it to continue but we will not be broken by it," Meshaal said on Wednesday.

Israel has signaled it prefers to press on with its ground troops offensive to find and destroy Hamas's rocket stores and wipe out a vast network of tunnels Israel sees as having been built for the purpose of infiltrating its territory.


U.S. FLIGHT BAN

But Israel is also under growing pressure to curtail the fighting, especially with American aviation authorities having banned U.S. flights to Tel Aviv for the past two days, spooked by rocket salvoes out of the Gaza Strip.

On Tuesday the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration took the rare step of banning flights to Tel Aviv, and renewed the order on Wednesday.

Many other foreign carriers, on heightened alert after a Malaysian airliner was shot down over a combat zone in Ukraine last week, followed suit. Israeli carriers continued to operate.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri praised the flight bans as a "great victory" for the Islamist group.

Israel also came under criticism from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who said there was "a strong possibility" Israel was committing war crimes in Gaza, where 703 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed in the fighting.

Pillay also condemned indiscriminate Islamist rocket fire out of Gaza, and the United Nations Human Rights Council said it would launch an international inquiry into alleged violations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted furiously.

"The decision today by the HRC is a travesty," he said in a statement. "The HRC should be launching an investigation into Hamas's decision to turn hospitals into military command centers, use schools as weapons depots and place missile batteries next to playgrounds, private homes and mosques."


ROCKETS IN SCHOOLS

The U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, lashed out at militants in Gaza, by expressing "outrage and regret" at rockets found inside a U.N. school for refugees, for the second time during the current conflict.

Storing the rockets in the schools "turned schools into potentially military targets, endangering the lives of innocent children," U.N. employees and the tens of thousands of Palestinians seeking shelter at Gaza schools from the fighting, Ban said. He urged an investigation.

Kerry returned to Egypt late on Wednesday after meeting in Jerusalem and the West Bank with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Ban and a grim-faced Netanyahu.

"We have certainly made some steps forward. There is still work to be done," said Kerry, on one of his most intensive regional visits since Netanyahu called off U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations over Abbas's power-share deal with Hamas in April.

Israel launched its offensive on July 8 to halt rocket salvoes by Hamas and its allies, which have struggled under an Israeli-Egyptian economic blockade on Gaza and were angered by a crackdown on their supporters in the occupied West Bank.

After an aerial and naval bombardment failed to quell the outgunned guerrillas, Israel poured ground forces into the Gaza Strip last Thursday to destroy Hamas's rocket stores and tunnels.

"We are meeting resistance around the tunnels ... they are constantly trying to attack us around and in the tunnels. That is the trend," Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said on Wednesday.

Palestinian health officials said Israeli tank fire killed 16 people early on Thurday, including six members of the same family.

Three Israeli soldiers were killed by explosive devices on Wednesday, lifting the army death toll to 32. Three civilians have also been killed in rocket attacks out of Gaza, including a Thai laborer hit on Wednesday.

The military says one of its soldiers is also missing and believes he might be dead. Hamas says it has captured him, but has not released a picture of him in their hands.

Rocket fire at Israel slowed slightly on Wednesday when 98 rockets were fired, 70 of them striking Israeli territory and 25 intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome defense system. Through much of the fighting more than 110 rockets had been fired daily at Israel.

Israel said it detained 150 Palestinians in Gaza for questioning about involvement with militants, and that it targeted more than 100 rocket launchers, tunnels and military compounds across Gaza on Wednesday.

Gaza has been rocked by regular bouts of violence since Israel unilaterally pulled out of the territory in 2005.

Hamas, which rejects Israel's right to exist, balked at Egypt's truce proposal last week and said its conditions had to be met in full before any end to the conflict.

These demands include the release of hundreds of Hamas supporters arrested since last month in the West Bank and an end to the Egyptian-Israeli blockade of Gaza, which has stymied the economy and made it near impossible for anyone to travel abroad.

The war is exacting a heavy toll on impoverished Gaza. Palestinian officials say at least 475 houses have been totally destroyed by Israeli fire and 2,644 partially damaged. Some 46 schools, 56 mosques and seven hospitals have also suffered varying degrees of destruction.


(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis, Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Arshad Mohammed and Yasmine Saleh in Cairo, Amena Bakr in Doha and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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From Reuters:

The White House on Friday urged Israel and the Palestinians to resume talks and do what they can to protect civilians after Egyptian-mediated negotiations failed to extend a ceasefire and rocket fire resumed.

"The United States is very concerned about today's developments in Gaza," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.

"We condemn the renewed rocket fire and we are concerned about the safety and security of civilians on both sides of that conflict," he said.

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Five Palestinians, including a 10-year-old boy, have been killed in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza since a ceasefire fell apart on Friday, a Palestinian medical official reported to Agence France Presse.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army said Palestinian militants fired 35 rockets into Israel on Friday, injuring a soldier and a civilian.

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The father of a ten-year old Palestinian boy, who was killed in an Israeli air strike on the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood in northern Gaza City, mourns at the city's Al-Shifa hospital, on August 8, 2014. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)

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From Reuters:

Palestinian factions will remain in Cairo and press on with Egyptian-mediated talks despite the end of the ceasefire in Gaza, the head of the delegation, Fatah official Azzam Ahmed, said on Friday.

"We are not for escalation. We are ready to continue through our Egyptian brothers in negotiating to reach a final agreement that would return the rights to their owners," Ahmed said. "I mean here lifting the blockade of Gaza."

Ahmed said Palestinian negotiators were due to meet Egyptian intelligence officials, who have been mediating the talks, later in the day. He said Palestinian factions were united in their decision not to extend the 72-hour truce that ended at 0500 GMT and had been clear about their basic demands to end the conflict.

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Reuters reports:

Egypt called on Friday for an immediate resumption of the ceasefire in Gaza and a return to the negotiating table, saying that only a few outstanding issues remained in negotiations it was mediating between Israel and the Palestinians.

"The foreign ministry calls on all sides to rise to their responsibilities ... and to return immediately to the ceasefire commitment and exploit the opportunity available to resume negotiations on the very limited sticking points that remain in the fastest possible time," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

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A 72-hour cease-fire expired at 8 a.m. today, and not long after, Gaza militants began firing rockets at Israel, The Associated Press reported.

The Israeli military said at least 10 rockets had been fired at Israel since the truce ended. Prior to the attacks, a senior official for Hamas said the militant groups would not extend the cease-fire.

For more, click here.

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From Reuters:

Israel has conditionally agreed to extend a ceasefire that ended a month of fighting in Gaza beyond a Friday deadline, an Israeli official said on Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official did not say for how much longer Israel had agreed to extend the truce, only that: "Israel has expressed its readiness to extend the truce under its current terms," referring to the deal brokered by Egypt that took effect on Tuesday.

Hamas had no immediate comment.

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ABC Foreign Editor Jon Williams reports that the IDF have confirmed the rocket sirens are sounding, but are checking to see if it is a false alarm.

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08/05/2014 4:20 PM EDT
Israel Arrests Kidnapping Suspect

Reuters reports that Israel has arrested one of the suspects in the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in June.

Hussam Kawasme, a 40-year-old resident of the West Bank city of Hebron, was arrested on July 11 in connection with the killing of Israelis Gil-Ad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah, who went missing on June 12 and were discovered dead a couple of weeks later.

Their kidnapping sparked a cycle of violence that led to the month-long conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Kawasme's arrest was made public for the first time on Tuesday in a document from an Israeli court case over whether houses belonging to him and two other suspects - who remain at large - should be destroyed as a punitive measure.

The lawyers listed as representing Kawasme were not reachable for comment.

The court document said Kawasme had admitted to helping to organize the kidnapping - securing funding from the Hamas Islamist group in Gaza and purchasing weapons which he passed on to the two other suspects who carried out the attack.

Kawasme also helped to bury the bodies of the teenagers in a plot of land he had bought a few months earlier, it said.

Israel has named the other two suspects in the case as Marwan Kawasme and Amar Abu Aysha.

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India's NDTV has released footage that appears to show three Palestinian militants setting up a rocket launching site in a crowded area of Gaza. The rarity of the video is remarkable, as militants in the enclave are notoriously covert in their launching operations.

NDTV journalist Sreenivasan Jain describes the scene from his neighboring balcony, narrating as blurred figures move in and out of the suspected rocket site.

Read more here.

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In an interview with HuffPost UK, former British Foreign Office minister Baroness Warsi explained why she dramatically quit the government on Tuesday.

Speaking exclusively to The Huffington Post UK in her first interview since resigning on Tuesday morning, the Tory peer accused the coalition of failing to act as an "honest broker" in the Middle East and called for an immediate arms embargo against Israel.

"The British government can only play a constructive role in solving the Middle East crisis if it is an honest broker," the former Foreign Office minister said, "and at the moment I do not think it is."

Read the full story here.

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From the Associated Press:

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Jordan has circulated a revised U.N. resolution calling for a durable cease-fire in the Gaza war and condemning "all violence and hostilities against civilians."

Jordan's new U.N. Ambassador Dina Kawar said the draft resolution was submitted to the Security Council on Tuesday in a form that could be put to a vote.

"We are in consultation with all council members and we hope by the next day or two that we come with a product," she said.

The draft resolution calls for "the sustained reopening" of crossing points into Gaza and calls on the U.N. to establish a mechanism to monitor implementation of a cease-fire agreement.

It makes no mention of Hamas or its rocketing of Israel and is likely to face an uphill struggle winning U.S. approval.

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Agence France Presse reports on an initial assessment of the cost of damage to the Gaza Strip after weeks of fighting between Israel and Hamas. Palestinian deputy economy minister Taysir Amro said "direct damages" will cost Gaza at least -6 billion in damage, and that the number will rise once further assessment of the full scale of damage is possible, according to the news agency.

Read the full story here.

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From Reuters:

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Malki said there was "clear evidence" of war crimes by Israel during its offensive in Gaza as he met International Criminal Court prosecutors on Tuesday to push for an investigation.

Malki visited The Hague shortly after Israel and the Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement that rules Gaza entered a 72-hour truce mediated by Egypt in an effort to pave the way for an extended ceasefire.

Malki said the Palestinian Authority wanted to give the ICC jurisdiction to investigate alleged crimes by all sides and had discussed a timeline with prosecutors to join the court. He did not provide details.

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08/05/2014 6:35 AM EDT
Gaza, Post-Offensive
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Sayeeda Warsi, senior minister of state at the British Foreign Office, has tendered her resignation because she can "no longer support" the country's policy on Gaza, BBC News reported.

Warsi took to Twitter to confirm the news:

Click here for more.

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08/05/2014 2:23 AM EDT
72-Hour Cease-Fire Takes Effect
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A spokesman for Hamas told Reuters that the Islamist group also agrees to a Egyptian ceasefire proposal.

"Hamas told Egypt a short while ago of its acceptance of a 72-hour period of calm," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters.

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An Israeli official says Israel has agreed to a temporary Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, Reuters reports.

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Egypt is urging senior Israeli and Palestinian delegations to join in talks on a permanent ceasefire for Gaza in the Egyptian capital, Reuters reports. Cairo also calls on Palestinians and Israelis to accept a proposal for a 72-hour ceasefire that would start tomorrow morning.

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08/04/2014 3:29 PM EDT
Ceasefire Agreement?

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that the Palestinian factions have agreed to an Egyptian proposal for a 72-hour ceasefire that would start tomorrow morning. While Palestinians officials have said Israel agreed to the truce as well, there is no official response from the Israeli government yet.

Read more here.


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Britain is investigating the possible death of one of its citizens in Gaza, Reuters reports on Monday. The country's Foreign Office said it had received reports a British national was killed in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Sunday.

More from Reuters:

(Reuters) - Britain is "urgently" investigating reports that a British national was killed in Gaza over the weekend, a spokesman for the British government said on Monday.

Britain sought to establish the man's fate as a brief Israeli truce to allow aid to reach Palestinians ended amid accusations of strikes by both sides, while Jerusalem was rocked by two attacks that appeared to be a backlash against the war in Gaza.

Citing friends of the man, British media reported that an aid worker from Rochdale in northern England had been killed on Sunday during an Israeli strike on Rafah while he was delivering supplies for a hospital.

"We are aware of the reports of the death of a British national in Rafah and are urgently looking into them," a spokesman for the Foreign Office said.

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The number of displaced Palestinians seeking shelter at UN facilities has topped 270,000.

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08/04/2014 11:48 AM EDT
Report: Israel Is Resuming Strikes

A spokesperson for the Israeli army reportedly told Agence France Presse that Israel is resuming its airstrikes in Gaza.

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In a statement released on Monday, Human Rights Watch accused Israeli troops of having opened fire and killing several fleeing civilians in the town of Khuza'a in southern Gaza. The international human rights group says the incidents took place between July 23 and July 25.

Human Rights Watch investigated several incidents between July 23 and 25 when, local residents said, Israeli forces opened fire on civilians trying to flee Khuza’a, but no Palestinian fighters were present at the time and no firefights were taking place.

On the morning of July 23, Israeli forces ordered a group of about 100 Palestinians in Khuza’a to leave a home in which they had gathered to take shelter, family members said. The first member to leave the house, Shahid al-Najjar, had his hands up but an Israeli soldier shot him in the jaw, seriously injuring him.

Israeli soldiers detained the men and boys over age 15 in an area close to the Gaza perimeter fence. Based on statements from witnesses and news reports, some were taken to Israel for questioning. Israeli forces released others that day, in small separate groups. As one group walked unarmed to Khan Younis, Israeli soldiers fired on them, killing one and wounding two others.

Read the briefing here.

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A gunmen opened fire near Jerusalem's Hebrew University, hitting a soldier in the stomach. It was the second incident in the Israeli capital this morning. Earlier, a man drove a construction vehicle into a bus.

Haaretz reports:

According to a preliminary investigation of the Mt. Scopus incident, a man dressed in black shot a 20-year-old soldier in the stomach, wounding him seriously, got on a motorcycle that was waiting for him and fled the scene. A security guard standing nearby shot at the suspect, but failed to hit him. Security forces are attempting to apprehend the attacker.

Read the full story here.

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Around the Web

Is Hamas using human shields in Gaza? - CNN.com

Gaza death toll tops 500 as U.S. steps up ceasefire efforts | Reuters

U.S. Calls for Immediate Truce in Gaza as Death Toll Mounts - WSJ

Israel's onslaught sends Gaza death toll well past 500 - LA Times