UNITED NATIONS (AFP) - Israel’s air strikes on the Gaza Strip have heightened the tensions surrounding the Palestinian bid for observer membership at the UN planned for later this month.

The Palestinian UN envoy said Wednesday’s attack - which killed the top Hamas military commander in the territory - was deliberately timed to torpedo the UN vote in two weeks and influence Israel’s general election in January.

Israel’s UN ambassador retorted that events in Gaza had shown the futility of the Palestinian campaign for international recognition. “They should change their request from a Non-Member State to Non-Member Terrorist State,” said ambassador Ron Prosor.

The United States and Israel are lobbying furiously against the Palestinian bid, which president Mahmud Abbas is scheduled to put to the UN General Assembly on November 29.

Abbas has had no control over Gaza since 2007, when the Islamist Hamas seized power from his Fatah faction in a week of street battles, cleaving the Palestinians into hostile rival camps. The new military strikes on Gaza, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to expand, come as the United Nations and many key players warn that time is running out to establish a Palestinian state.

The US and Israeli governments say there can be no Palestinian state without direct peace talks that have been deadlocked for more than two years.

The Palestinians refuse talks while Israel expands its settlements in the occupied territories. Abbas has said, however, that he would return to talks if the UN vote is successful.

The United States is talking with Palestinian officials in a bid to at least delay the vote, UN diplomats said.

“The Gaza strikes will complicate negotiations around the Palestinian application even more,” one Western official said on condition of anonymity.

The Europeans are pressing Abbas to delay the UN move until after Israel’s election and President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January, in order to give the US administration more time to prepare a new peace bid, diplomats said.

“The Palestinians are doing this because they are frustrated. They believe they have nothing to lose going for it now, so they will not change it unless the United States has something to offer,” said one Middle East diplomat.

Hamas rulers said they would not consider a truce with Israel for now. “We will not be exposed to further tricks by the occupation. We consider talk of a truce at this time an attempt to provide more cover for the continuation of the escalation on Gaza,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said at a press conference. “Talk of a truce is another attempt by the occupation at deception,” he said, adding that “the enemy started an open war on our people and our resistance in Gaza.”

Israel will never defeat Gaza, Khaled Meshaal, the exiled chief of the Hamas movement which rules the Palestinian territory, said in a defiant speech in Sudan on Thursday. “This enemy is weak and cannot vanquish Gaza,” Meshaal told a major conference of Sudanese Islamists.

His visit to Sudan came as warplanes from the Jewish state pounded Gaza for a second day on Thursday, in Israel’s toughest assault on the territory in four years. Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi rejected on Thursday what he called Israel’s aggression in Gaza, saying it threatened to destabilise the region, while Cairo called on the US to stop Israel’s strikes.

“The Israelis must understand that we do not accept this aggression, which could lead to instability in the region,” Mursi said in televised remarks, as Israeli air forces pummelled Gaza and militants fired rockets back in a deadly tit for tat.

Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil will visit the Gaza Strip on Friday as Israel presses a major air campaign against the territory, the ruling Hamas government said on Thursday. “The Egyptian leadership informed us that Prime Minister Hisham Qandil will visit Gaza tomorrow, accompanied by a number of ministers. We welcome this visit and appreciate this courageous stand,” Hamas spokesman Taher al-Nunu told AFP.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also on Thursday urged both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinians to avoid escalating Gaza violence that has killed 15 Palestinians and three Israelis.

“The president of Russia called on the parties to exercise restraint and avoid the path of escalating violence, whose victims include civilians, and to do everything to return the situation to its normal course,” the Kremlin said following a telephone conversation between Putin and Netanyahu.

While Iran’s foreign ministry condemned as “organised terrorism” a vast Israeli operation launched in the Gaza Strip to halt rocket fire by Hamas fighters into the Jewish state.

Iran “strongly condemns the criminal act of Zionist (Israeli) military forces in killing civilians,” ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said in remarks published on the website of state broadcaster IRIB.

Mehmanparast said the offensive amounted to “organised terrorism” in the face of what he called “silence of international organisations.”

“Unfortunately the massacre of innocent and defenceless Palestinians has become a routine procedure adopted by the Zionist regime,” he said.