* PLO endorsement could help Cairo's truce bid
* Israel presses offensive, Gaza toll hits 624
* Slain officer brings Israeli losses to 31
* Foreign airlines shun Tel Aviv over rocket risk (Updates Israeli death toll)
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams
GAZA/JERUSALEM, July 23 (Reuters) - The Palestinian decision-making body led by U.S.-backed President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday endorsed demands by Hamas for halting Gaza hostilities with Israel, a closing of ranks that may help Egyptian-mediated truce efforts.
With Israeli and U.S. encouragement, Egypt has tried to get both sides to hold fire and then negotiate terms for protracted calm in the Palestinian enclave where officials said 624 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in 15 days of fighting.
Hamas, the Gaza Strip's dominant Islamists, and other armed factions had balked at Cairo's offer, saying they wanted assurances of relief from an Israeli-Egyptian blockade and other concessions. The dispute was further complicated by distrust between Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Hamas.
In a move that could effectively turn Abbas into the main interlocutor for a Gaza truce, his umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on Wednesday formally supported core conditions set by the Hamas-led fighters.
"The Gaza demands of stopping the aggression and lifting the blockade in all its forms are the demands of the entire Palestinian people and they represent the goal that the Palestinian leadership has dedicated all its power to achieve," senior PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo said in Ramallah, the hub city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank where Abbas is based.
"We are confident Gaza will not be broken as long as our people are standing beside it to support it through all possible means until the invaders understand that our great people inside the homeland and outside will not leave Gaza alone."
Signaling that Abbas, too, sought a staggered cessation of hostilities, the Palestinian leader's Fatah faction on Tuesday proposed a truce followed by five days of negotiations on terms.
There was no immediate response to the PLO statement from Hamas or Israel, which pressed the Gaza offensive it began on July 8 after a surge of cross-border rocket salvoes.
VIOLENCE AFFECTS FLIGHTS
Israel has lost 29 soldiers in the Gaza clashes, including a tank officer who the army said on Wednesday had been killed by a Palestinian sniper overnight. Two Israeli civilians have been killed by shelling by Palestinian fighters that has reached deep into the Jewish state, spreading panic despite the success of its Iron Dome rocket interceptor and civilian shelters.
Three Palestinians died in Israeli strikes on Wednesday, Gaza officials said. Rocket launches set off air-raid sirens in southern Israel, but there was no word of casualties.
There was also violence in the West Bank, where a Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli troops near Bethlehem. The army said soldiers fired a rubber bullet at him during a confrontation with dozens of Palestinians hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails.
Egyptian sources, speaking on Tuesday as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cairo to advance truce efforts, said a unified Palestinian position could help achieve a deal.
Unlike Hamas, which refuses permanent coexistence with the Jewish state, the PLO has pursued peacemaking for two decades.
Those efforts were set back in April when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called off U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations over Abbas's surprise power-share deal with Hamas.
Yet Netanyahu stopped short of cutting ties with Abbas, whose forces help secure the West Bank, and foreign mediators continue to see the Palestinian leader as someone the Israelis can negotiate with.
Having unilaterally accepted an Egyptian-proposed truce last week that was rejected by Hamas, the Israelis made clear on Tuesday they would not stand down before their forces destroyed Hamas's military infrastructure, including rocket sites and a network of tunnels used for cross-border Palestinian raids.
"A cease-fire is not near," said Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the most dovish member of Netanyahu's security cabinet.
Yet Israel faced mounting international alarm at the toll on Palestinian civilians, as well as economic pressure from lost tourism that soared on Tuesday when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) took the rare step of banning flights to Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion International Airport for at least 24 hours after a rocket from Gaza struck nearby, wounding two people.
European airlines also canceled flights to Israel, whose own carriers continued to operate.
An Israeli official said Netanyahu asked Kerry to help restore the U.S. flights. A U.S. official said the Obama administration would not "overrule the FAA" on a security precaution but noted the ban would be reviewed after 24 hours.
FOCUS ON HAMAS
Following meetings in Egypt, which has some leverage over Hamas through its control of its border with Gaza, Kerry said on Tuesday there was still "work to do" to resolve the conflict and urged the Palestinian Islamists to pursue negotiations.
Because Washington, like Israel and the European Union, deems Hamas a terrorist group, they have no direct contact and Washington must rely on proxies such as Egypt, Qatar and Turkey.
In a sign of the intensity of the U.S. diplomacy, Kerry spoke to Netanyahu and to Qatari and Turkish foreign ministers after meeting Sisi for two hours, a senior U.S. official said.
"The Egyptians have provided a framework and a forum for them to be able to come to the table to have a serious discussion together with other factions of the Palestinians," Kerry said. "Hamas has a fundamental choice to make and it is a choice that will have a profound impact for the people of Gaza."
Angered by an Israeli crackdown on its supporters in the West Bank and by Gaza's hardship under blockade, Hamas has said it is willing to continue fighting. In addition to freeing up Gaza's borders, Hamas wants a prisoner release by Israel.
The Egyptian plan does not specify a timeline for easing the blockade, saying "crossings shall be opened and the passage of persons and goods through border crossings shall be facilitated once the security situation becomes stable on the ground".
U.S. officials view Qatar, a tiny, gas-rich Gulf state that has supported Hamas financially and hosts some of the militant group's senior leaders, as important to the diplomacy.
In contrast, the Egyptian government is deeply suspicious of Hamas as it is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood movement toppled from power in Cairo by then-army chief Sisi last year.
Israel is openly opposed to giving Qatar or Turkey leading roles in mediation, given its troubled ties with both countries.
The upcoming Eid al-Fitr festival - Islam's biggest annual celebration that follows the end of the fasting month of Ramadan this weekend - could provide all sides with a convenient moment to agree to a cease-fire.
Asked about Eid, a senior Obama administration official said: "It's a potential opportunity. We want there to be a cease-fire as soon as possible basically, and insofar as that's a marker that can compel Hamas to the table that would be a good thing, but the bottom line is they're going to have to stop firing rockets." (Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Cairo and Amena Bakr in Doha; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Ken Wills and Ron Popeski)
BEFORE YOU GO
08/08/2014 2:47 PM EDT
White House Concerned By Renewed Fighting
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.
08/08/2014 1:42 PM EDT
Official: 5 Palestinians Killed In Gaza
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.
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)
08/08/2014 9:23 AM EDT
Palestinian Delegation Says Gaza Talks Will Continue
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.
08/08/2014 9:13 AM EDT
Egypt: Agreement Close In Gaza Talks
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.
08/08/2014 3:58 AM EDT
Israeli Airstrikes On Gaza Resume
BREAKING: Israel says it's resumed strikes on Gaza in response to rocket fire, after end of 3-day truce.— The Associated Press (@AP) August 8, 2014
08/08/2014 3:02 AM EDT
Cease-Fire Ends With New Rocket Attacks
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.
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08/06/2014 2:46 PM EDT
Official: Israel Agrees To Extend Ceasefire
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.
08/06/2014 2:12 PM EDT
IDF: Rocket Sirens Were False Alarm
IDF confirms rocket sirens in southern Israel were false alarm http://t.co/QN677jtlXE— Haaretz.com (@haaretzcom) August 6, 2014
08/06/2014 1:18 PM EDT
Report: Rocket Sirens Sound At Gaza Border
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.
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.