Israel pounded targets across the Gaza Strip yesterday, saying that no ceasefire was near as top US and UN diplomats pursued talks on halting fighting that has claimed more than 500 lives.
US Secretary of State John Kerry held talks in Egypt with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri, while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was due to arrive in Israel later in the day. Both have voiced alarm at the mounting civilian casualties.
Ban was due to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv and then see the Palestinian prime minister in the West Bank.
Meanwhile, Palestinian civilians in densely populated Gaza have no place to hide from Israel’s military offensive and children are paying the heaviest price, the UN said yesterday.
“There is literally no safe place for civilians,” Jens Laerke, spokesman of the UN Office for Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), told a news briefing in Geneva.
However, there was no let-up in the fighting around Gaza, with plumes of black smoke spiraling into the sky and Israeli shells raining down on the enclave.
Hamas, the dominant group in the Gaza Strip, and its allies fired more rockets into Israel, triggering sirens in Tel Aviv.
One hit a town on the fringes of Ben-Gurion International Airport, lightly injuring two people, officials said.
Israel launched its offensive on July 8 to halt missile salvoes out of Gaza by Hamas, which was angered by a crackdown on its supporters in the occupied West Bank.
“A ceasefire is not near,” said Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, viewed as the most dovish member of Netanyahu’s inner security Cabinet.
“I see no light at the end of the tunnel,” she told Israel’s Army Radio.
With the conflict entering its third week, the Palestinian death toll rose to 546, including nearly 100 children and many other civilians, Gaza health officials said.
The Israeli military said it had killed 183 militants.
Israel’s casualties also mounted, with the military announcing the deaths of two more soldiers, bringing the number of army fatalities to 27 — almost three times as many as were killed in the last ground invasion of Gaza, in a 2008 to 2009 war.
Two Israeli civilians have also been killed by Palestinian rocket fire into Israel.
Laerke said the priority for OCHA and other aid agencies was protecting civilians and evacuating and treating the wounded.
Nearly 500 homes have been destroyed by Israeli air strikes and 100,000 people have sought shelter in schools of the UN Relief and Works Agency, where they need food, water and mattresses, he said.
The overwhelming majority of people killed so far in the conflict are Palestinians, including 121 Gaza children under the age of 18 who make up one-third of the total civilian casualties, Juliette Touma of UNICEF said.
More than 900 Palestinian children are also reported to have been injured, UNICEF said.