GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories (AFP) ― U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry were in Cairo Tuesday in a bid to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas after two weeks of fighting which has left over 570 Palestinians dead.
Many of those killed in the relentless Israeli campaign of shelling and airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, in its 15th day, were women and children. On the Israeli side 27 soldiers and two civilians have died.
World powers have urged Hamas to accept an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire and stop raining rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip, demands it has so far resisted.
“Only Hamas now needs to make the decision to spare innocent civilians from this violence,” Kerry said, and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon appealed for the violence to “stop now.”
Kerry, who arrived in Cairo to try and intensify truce efforts, pledged $47 million in humanitarian aid for the battered Gaza Strip.
Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi too urged Hamas to accept an Egyptian proposal to end the fighting it had turned down last week.
Kerry plans to hold his meetings Tuesday with the Egyptian leadership including President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.
However U.S. officials acknowledge that the truce efforts could prove trickier than in the past as Egypt ― long the key regional broker ― had little leverage with Hamas after the army overthrew Islamist president Mohamad Morsi last year.
The top U.S. diplomat defended ally Israel’s right to strike against Hamas militants, but voiced concern over the massive civilian violence.
“We are deeply concerned about the consequences of Israel’s appropriate and legitimate effort to defend itself,” he told reporters as he met with the U.N. chief, urging Hamas to accept the Egyptian-proposed cease-fire.
Ban said Hamas “should immediately stop firing rockets,” adding that while he understood Israel’s military response, “there is a proportionality and ... most of the death toll (has been) Palestinian people.”
Fresh Israeli strikes and Gaza emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said 16 Palestinians were killed on Tuesday, raising the death toll since Israel launched its operation on July 8 to 576.
Israel says its campaign aims to stamp out rocket fire from Gaza, and the ground phase of the operation to destroy tunnels burrowed into Israel by Hamas, the main power in the coastal strip.
Since the offensive began huge numbers of Gazans have fled their homes, with the U.N. saying more than 100,000 people have sought shelter in 69 schools run by its Palestinian refugee agency.
On Tuesday morning, the Israeli army announced two of its soldiers had been killed in clashes in Gaza.
That brought its toll to 27 soldiers killed since the start of the operation, including 13 on Sunday, the bloodiest single day for the Israeli military since the Lebanon war of 2006.
Two Israeli civilians, both hit by rocket fire, have been killed.
Hamas on Monday reiterated its insistence on a lifting of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and the release of prisoners to halt its rocket fire.
“The conditions for a cease-fire are ... a full lifting of the blockade and then the release of those recently detained in the West Bank,” its leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, said on television.
“We cannot go backwards, to a slow death,” he said, referring to the Israeli blockade in force since 2006.
“The conditions of the Palestinian resistance constitute the minimum required for a truce. The resistance and the sons of our people who have made such sacrifices in this mad war cannot accept anything less.”
Meanwhile, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas held talks in Doha, pledging to work together for a cease-fire and to lift the blockade on Gaza.