Israeli air strikes killed 18 Palestinians yesterday, hiking the Gaza death toll to 95 as global efforts to broker a truce to end the worst violence in four years gathered pace.
The latest bloodshed in the densely populated enclave came after a night of earth-shaking raids, one of them leveling a police station, and sustained fire from Israeli navy ships.
As the violence raged for a sixth day, ceasefire efforts gathered steam, with Hamas officials in Cairo saying Egyptian-led talks with Israel were “positive” but now focused on the need to guarantee any truce.
After a strike on a Gaza City home killed a family of nine on Sunday, the bloodiest day yet of the conflict with 29 killed, angry mourners flocked to the funeral of the five children and four adults whose bodies were carried through streets wrapped in Palestinian flags.
“Do children fire rockets?” shouted a man through a loudspeaker, as the crowd roared back: “No!”
The violence, which comes as Israel gears up for a general election on Jan. 22, raised the specter of a broader Israeli military campaign like its 22-day Operation Cast Lead, launched in December 2008.
Analysts say Israel’s leadership appears satisfied with the success of its latest operation — dubbed Pillar of Defense — and that could it be ready for a ceasefire.
However, the Jewish state has signalled it is ready to expand the operation, while Gaza’s rulers Hamas may feel emboldened after securing the support of the recently-installed Islamist governments of Egypt and Tunisia.
The overall death toll from the Israeli raids on the Palestinian territory hit 95 on Monday after an air strike on car in northern Gaza and as four people died of injuries suffered in earlier raids.
So far, the Israeli military has struck more than 1,350 targets in Gaza, and 570 rockets have stuck southern Israel while another 302 were intercepted.
The latest negotiations aimed at ending the conflict, conducted in Cairo, ended without agreement on Sunday. However, all sides have expressed a willingness to engage in more talks.
Hamas has demanded Israel lift its six-year siege of Gaza as a basic condition for the end to rocket attacks and is also understood to be seeking a guarantee that Israel will stop assassinating its leaders.
Israel’s targeted killing of a top Hamas military commander on Wednesday was the trigger which started the current flare-up.
Hamas won the backing of rival Palestinian factions Fatah, which runs the West Bank, and Islamic Jihad yesterday.
“From here, we announce with other [factional] leaders, that we are ending the division,” senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub told a crowd which gathered for a demonstration in Ramallah.
Israel has shown little sign of being ready to call off or even briefly halt its campaign, and threatened to expand its operation, with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman insisting that “the first and absolute condition for a truce is stopping all fire from Gaza.”
This has piled even more pressure on Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and prompted UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to promise to visit the region soon.
Ban was due in Cairo yesterday for talks with Morsi ahead of a visit to meet Israeli and Palestinian officials tomorrow.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was also due to arrive in Jerusalem yesterday just days after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Israel was ready to “significantly expand” its operation.
Early yesterday, public radio reported that about 40,000 reservists were already massed near the Gaza border.