GAZA CITY - UN chief Ban Ki-moon demanded Tuesday that Israel and Hamas halt spiralling violence in Gaza as he pushed diplomatic efforts to end bloodshed that has killed more than 620 Palestinians.
Following top-level truce talks in Cairo, the UN secretary-general headed to Israel to deliver his message in person as the 15-day conflict showed no sign of easing.
“My message to Israelis and Palestinians is the same: Stop fighting, start talking and take on the root causes of the conflict so that we are not at the same situation in the next six months or a year,” he said.
In Cairo, US Secretary of State John Kerry discussed ceasefire proposals with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with both voicing guarded hopes of an end to the violence.
But neither side showed any willingness to pull back, with Israel initially refusing to halt its fire without finishing a ground operation to destroy tunnels used by militants for cross-border attacks.
There was more death on the ground in Gaza where the Palestinian toll rose to over 620. Among the dead were three children and 10 women, one of whom was pregnant, medics said.
Since the offensive, more than 100,000 Gazans have fled their homes, seeking shelter in 69 schools run by the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA.
Israeli tank fire hit an UNRWA school sheltering the displaced in Al-Maghazi in central Gaza as shelling on the area resumed Tuesday afternoon, an official said. The shell hit when a team, with Israeli clearance, was at the school observing damage from a possible strike the day before.
“While they were there, they came under Israeli shelling,” he added, saying there were holes blown through the walls of the school compound, but that no one was injured.
The Israeli military said two more of its soldiers had been killed in the fighting a day earlier, hiking the overall Israeli death toll to 29, among them 27 soldiers who died in the past four days.
It also confirmed a soldier who Hamas militants claimed they had kidnapped was dead, saying his body remained unaccounted for. Publication of the name suggested Hamas was likely holding the soldier’s remains.
Despite its rising body count, Israel said it would only halt its Gaza offensive after laying waste to a sophisticated network of tunnels used by militants for cross-border attacks.
A ceasefire “won’t happen before we really finish the tunnels project which was laid out as a strategic objective,” Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said, referring to a ground offensive launched on Thursday evening.
She said Hamas’s “completely unacceptable” preconditions for a truce had “no chance of being accepted by anyone”.
Hamas has laid out a list of demands for halting its fire, including a lifting of Israel’s eight-year blockade on Gaza, the release of dozens of prisoners, and the opening of its Rafah border crossing with Egypt.
As he touched down in Tel Aviv, UN chief Ban demanded the two sides immediately hold their fire as he sought to drive forward regional efforts for a ceasefire.
Describing Hamas rocket fire on Israel as “shocking,” he said it must “stop immediately”.
But he also said Israel must exercise “maximum restraint” in Gaza, and he urged it to take a hard look at some of the root causes of the conflict “so people will not feel they have to resort to violence as a means of expressing their grievances”.
Since last week, when Hamas rejected an Egyptian ceasefire proposal that was accepted by Israel, there has been growing world pressure on the Islamist movement to halt its fire and stop raining rockets onto Israel.
In Cairo, following talks with Sisi, Kerry again placed the onus on Hamas to accept a ceasefire to end the raging conflict in Gaza, voicing support for an Egyptian truce initiative as a “framework” to end the fighting. A senior Palestinian official said talks were ongoing with Hamas for a truce to end its war in Gaza with Israel, adding both sides have refused a humanitarian ceasefire. Azzam al-Ahmed, an aide to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, landed again in Cairo on Tuesday where he could meet US Secretary of State John Kerry, already in the Egyptian capital pushing for a truce.
Hamas has said it would not accept an Egyptian proposal that calls for a ceasefire followed by indirect talks, insisting instead on firm commitments first to end Israel’s eight-year blockade of Gaza.
The West Bank-based president Abbas, who recently agreed a unity deal with Hamas, met Khaled Meshaal in Qatar on Monday bidding to find a compromise.