600 dead; no end in sight

The Associated Press and New York Times News Service /

Published Jul 22, 2014 at 12:01AM

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — A high-level attempt by the U.N. chief and the U.S. secretary of state to end deadly Israel-Hamas fighting was off to a rough start Monday: Gaza’s Hamas rulers signaled they won’t agree to an unconditional cease-fire, Israel’s prime minister said he’ll do whatever is necessary to keep Israelis safe from Hamas attacks and the overall Palestinian death toll surpassed 560.

Across Gaza, Israeli fighter planes hit homes and a high-rise tower, burying families in the rubble. The strike on the Gaza City tower brought down most of the building, killing 11 people — including six members of the same family — and wounding 40, said Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra.

Israeli tanks, meanwhile, shelled a hospital in central Gaza, killing four people and wounding dozens as the daily death toll surpassed 100 for a second day. Israel said the shelling targeted rockets hidden near the compound, and accused militants of using civilians as shields.

At least 565 Palestinians have been killed and more than 3,600 wounded in the past two weeks, al-Kidra said. On the Israeli side, seven more soldiers were killed in clashes with Gaza fighters Monday, bringing the military death toll to 25 — more than twice as many as in Israel’s last Gaza ground war in 2009. Two civilians have also died in Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli cities and scores of soldiers have been injured.

The mounting bloodshed brought U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Cairo on Monday, for a new cease-fire push. However, the gaps remain wide and no credible mediator has emerged.

Egypt, Israel and the U.S. back an unconditional cease-fire, to be followed by talks on a possible new border arrangement for Gaza. Israel and Egypt have severely restricted movement in and out of Gaza since Hamas seized the territory in 2007.

On Monday, President Barack Obama reaffirmed his belief that Israel has the right to defend itself against rockets being launched by Hamas into Israel. Yet, he contended that Israel’s military action in Gaza had already done “significant damage” to the Hamas terrorist infrastructure and said he doesn’t want to see more civilians getting killed.

In Cairo, Kerry announced the U.S. will send $47 million in humanitarian aid for tens of thousands of Palestinians who have fled their homes in Gaza to escape the violence. Kerry’s top aides warned, however, that achieving an immediate and lasting cease-fire would be difficult and he hoped to make any progress over the next several days.

Israel has said it is trying to minimize civilian deaths and has accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields. However, Israeli strikes on homes have driven up casualties. About half of the dead were killed in their homes, according to the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights, a Palestinian human rights group. Various Palestinian rights groups estimated that at least 425 homes across Gaza were attacked by the military since July 8. Israel has not provided details about targets, only saying it is hitting Hamas rocket launchers and command and control centers.

What about the tunnels?

Israeli leaders have stressed two points in selling their Gaza Strip ground invasion internationally and at home: that they embraced all cease-fire proposals and that troops are targeting tunnels Palestinian militants use to infiltrate their territory. And the operation has uncovered more tunnels than expected, officials said, and there were two more deadly incursions Monday, making many Israelis say they were reluctant to leave a job half-finished.

That has Israeli officials struggling with a more distilled version of the dilemma it has faced in repeated rounds against Hamas. If it stops now, it faces the prospect of a newly embittered enemy retaining the capacity to attack. But if it stays the course, it is liable to kill many more civilians and face international condemnation.

“Israel must not agree to any proposal for a cease-fire until the tunnels are eliminated,” Gilad Erdan, the right-wing minister of communications, said during a hospital visit to wounded soldiers.

But Tzipi Livni, the centrist justice minister, told reporters that demilitarizing Gaza could be tackled after an agreement, and that “to cease the fire, stop the fire, this is the main goal right now.”

Americans killed

On Sunday, Max Steinberg, a 24-year-old California-born sharpshooter, was riding with his unit through Gaza City when his vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb. Steinberg was one of 13 Israeli soldiers who were killed on Sunday, the deadliest day for both sides in the conflict. Nissim Sean Carmeli, a sergeant in the same Golani Brigade who hailed from Texas, was also killed.

The two men were among around 1,100 soldiers who serve in the Israeli army despite not growing up in Israel, officials said, and they had taken disparate journeys from the U.S. to combat in Gaza. Carmeli, 21, had long family ties to the country he would eventually fight for; Steinberg did not.