GAZA CITY: Diplomatic efforts gathered pace Thursday for a ceasefire on the 11th day of deadly violence between Israel and armed Palestinian groups in Gaza, as air strikes again hammered the enclave.
The Israeli security cabinet was set to meet at 1600 GMT to discuss a possible ceasefire with the Hamas Islamist movement ruling the besieged and crowded coastal strip, official sources told AFP.
In the southern Gaza town of Rafah, devastating Israeli air strikes turned buildings into clouds of dust and rubble, as an ambulance sped across town to help the wounded, an AFP reporter said.
Rocket fire from Gaza intensified in the afternoon, sending Israelis living on its borders running into shelters, according to Israeli army warnings.
United Nations chief Antonio Guterres told the UN General Assembly Thursday that "the fighting must stop immediately", calling the continued crossfire between Israeli forces and Palestinian groups "unacceptable".
“If there is a hell on earth, it is the lives of children in Gaza,” Guterres added.
The news of the Israeli security meeting came after pressure mounted to end the bloodshed, following US President Joe Biden urging a “significant de-escalation.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, set to attend the evening meeting with top security officials, earlier vowed to push on until the military campaign reaches its objective, “to restore quiet and security” for Israelis.
UN Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland was visiting Qatar for talks with Ismail Haniyeh, the political leader of Hamas, as part of an effort to “restore calm,” according to a diplomatic source.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said “indirect talks” with Hamas were essential to advancing efforts toward an end of hostilities.
“Of course Hamas has to be included, because without Hamas there will be no cease-fire,” Merkel said, who also spoke to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas Thursday, where they agreed the need “for a speedy ceasefire.”
Her foreign minister, Heiko Maas, speaking earlier near Tel Aviv, expressed Germany's “solidarity” with Israel but also called for an end to the fighting.
“Israel has the right to defend itself against this massive and unacceptable attack,” Maas said of the rockets Hamas first fired on May 10, following violent clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound.
“The number of victims is rising every day and this greatly concerns us.”
A senior Hamas official told AFP: “We expect a return to calm in the coming hours, or tomorrow (Friday), but it depends on the cessation of the aggression of the occupation forces in Gaza and Jerusalem.
“But there is nothing definitive for the moment,” added the source, indicating that Qatar, an emirate financing aid to Gaza and where Haniyeh lives, was at the heart of “intense” negotiations.
The Israeli army said Hamas and other Islamist armed groups in Gaza have fired 4,070 rockets towards Israel, with the overwhelming majority of those that were bound for populated areas intercepted by its Iron Dome air defences.
The rockets have claimed 12 lives in Israel, including one child, with one Indian and two Thai nationals among those killed, the police say.
Israeli strikes on Gaza have killed 230 Palestinians, including 65 children, according to the Gaza health ministry, leaving vast areas in rubble and displacing some 120,000 people, according to the Hamas government.
Overnight, Israel continued to pound Gaza with air strikes and artillery fire aimed at destroying Hamas tunnels and other infrastructure, the military said.
One Israeli strike on Gaza on Wednesday killed a disabled man, his pregnant wife and their three-year-old child, the enclave's health ministry said.
“What did my brother do?” the man's bereaved brother Omar Saleha, 31, told AFP. “He was just sitting in his wheelchair.”
Israel says it takes all steps to avoid civilian casualties, including by phoning residents to warn them of imminent strikes, and blames Hamas for placing weapons and military sites in densely populated areas.
The US, a key Israel ally, has repeatedly blocked adoption of a joint UN Security Council statement calling for a halt to hostilities, including one proposed by France, saying it could undermine efforts to de-escalate the crisis.
Israel's bombing campaign has left the two million people of Gaza, which has been under Israeli blockade for 14 years, desperate for relief.
The International Committee of the Red Cross warned that people in both Gaza and Israel “urgently need respite from non-stop hostilities,” while the World Health Organization issued an appeal for $7 million in aid
The military conflict has sharply heightened tensions and sparked violence between Jews and Arab-Israelis, while Palestinian protesters in the West Bank and east Jerusalem have repeatedly clashed with security forces.
In the West Bank, the army has killed 25 Palestinians since the outbreak of hostilities. The worst death toll in years in the occupied Palestinian territory includes several Palestinians who the Israeli army said had attempted to ram or stab Israeli forces at checkpoints.