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Sunday 21 September 2014

Bid for ceasefire stepped up as Israel combs Gaza

Hamas fighters breach border as Israeli troops find a dozen tunnels

Published 20/07/2014 | 02:30

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CHILDHOOD AMID THE RUBBLE: A Palestinian child wanders past debris from a destroyed house, following an overnight Israeli strike in Beit Lahiya, in the north of the Gaza Strip. Photo credit: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

Diplomatic pressure for a ceasefire in Gaza increased yesterday as the Palestinian death toll in the 11-day conflict climbed to more than 300 and at least 50,000 people had to flee their homes in the face of the Israeli military assault from ground, air and sea.

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With Israel saying its ground offensive could last two weeks, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon travelled to the region to add his weight to efforts to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas.

The Egyptian government restated a proposal it had made on Monday, which was accepted by Israel but dismissed by Hamas. Israel launched the ground invasion following Hamas's rejection.

"This initiative still presents the chance for the two sides to cease fire, ending the bloodshed," said Egypt's foreign minister, Sameh Shukri.

"It meets the needs of both sides. We will continue to propose it."

Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said a ceasefire was "an urgent imperative", adding that his government fully backed the Egyptian initiative, which is also supported by the Arab League.

"The absolute priority is a ceasefire, but it must guarantee a lasting truce," Fabius said in Cairo, after meeting the Egyptian president, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.

Hamas has refused to agree to a ceasefire without preconditions on the release of prisoners arrested in the West Bank and the opening of crossings from Gaza to Egypt and Israel. Senior Hamas official Ghazi Hamad told Britain's Channel 4 News yesterday that Hamas would continue to fire rockets until Israel agreed to its demands.

Qatar and Turkey, seen as allies of Hamas, were also attempting to broker a ceasefire, with the Qatari foreign minister, Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah, reportedly tabling a proposal reflecting Hamas's stance.

In Gaza, Israeli tanks and bulldozers were clearing a wide strip of land inside the perimeter fence as troops continued to hunt for openings to cross-border tunnels dug by militants. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) said they had found more than a dozen tunnels since the ground offensive started.

The UN said the number of internal refugees has more than doubled since the start of the ground invasion, to at least 50,000. The World Food Programme was stepping up efforts to distribute supplies to Palestinian civilians caught in the fighting.

Hamas militants breached the border yesterday to fire an anti-tank missile at Israeli soldiers, injuring four, the IDF said. Roads around Gaza were closed as troops hunted for militants, whom they said were planning a major attack on a nearby settlement. An Israeli civilian was killed in the Negev desert by a rocket  that was fired from Gaza. 


Harriet Sherwood

Sunday Independent

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