UN pushes diplomatic efforts for truce as jets pound Gaza

* No let-up in fighting as Gaza death toll crosses 600 * Plumes of black smoke spiral into sky as Israeli shells rain down on coastal Palestinian enclave

GAZA CITY: UN chief Ban Ki-moon demanded Tuesday that Israel and Hamas halt the spiralling violence in Gaza as he pushed diplomatic efforts to end bloodshed that has killed 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 refusing to halt its fire without finishing a ground operation to destroy tunnels used by militants for cross-border attacks.
Even as the diplomats talked, Palestinian rockets continued to fall on central Israel, prompting US airline Delta to indefinitely suspend its flights to the Jewish state over security concerns.
And there was more death on the ground in Gaza where the Palestinian toll rose over 620. Among the dead were two children and nine women, one of whom was pregnant, medics said.
On the streets of Gaza City, there were very few people and the only shops doing trade were those selling fruit and vegetables.
In the morning, two warning shots were fired at an 11-storey building in the city centre that houses the offices of Al-Jazeera and global news agency AP, prompting journalists and a handful of residents to flee into the street.
“We came here from Shejaiya,” said a woman who had sought refuge in the building.
“There doesn’t seem to be anywhere that is safe,” she said, huddling on the pavement with three female relatives, nine children and an elderly man.
Since the offensive, more than 100,000 Gazans have fled their homes, seeking shelter in 69 schools run by the Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA.
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 whom 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, although it was unclear if the entire body or only part of it was missing.
Despite its rising body count, Israel said it would only halt its Gaza offensive after laying waste to a network of sophisticated 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” — not by Israel, nor by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, nor by Cairo or Washington.
“In a situation where Hamas says ‘Give us everything or the fighting will continue,’ well then the fighting will continue.”
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”. 

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