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US pushes for truce as Gaza battle rages

By Peter Enav

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, July 23 2014 1:04 p.m. MDT

Israeli soldiers display national flag on top of an armored personnel carrier near the border of Israel and Gaza Strip Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Israeli troops battled Hamas militants on Wednesday near a southern Gaza Strip town, sending Palestinian residents fleeing, as the U.S. secretary of state presses ahead with top-gear efforts to end the conflict that has killed hundreds of Palestinians and tens of Israelis.

Tsafrir Abayov, Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli troops battled Hamas militants on Wednesday near a southern Gaza Strip town as the top U.S. diplomat reported progress in efforts to end fighting that has so far killed more than 680 Palestinians and 34 Israelis.

But neither side appeared to be backing down, after Palestinian rocket fire led several international airlines to cancel flights to Tel Aviv and Israeli troops clashed with Hamas near the Gaza town of Khan Younis in heavy fighting that forced dozens of families to flee. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal later demanded Gaza's borders be open and an end to the blockade against it, calling Palestinians "the true owners of the land."

Israel has insisted it must substantially curb the military capabilities of the Islamic militant group Hamas — a position that appears to have gained support within the U.S. administration — while Hamas has demanded the lifting of a crippling Israeli and Egyptian blockade on the impoverished coastal territory it has ruled since 2007.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew into Tel Aviv despite a Federal Aviation Administration ban following a Hamas rocket that hit near the airport the day before, reflecting his determination to achieve a cease-fire.

He met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after earlier talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, who is also in the region. But U.S. officials have downplayed expectations for an immediate, lasting truce.

In Jerusalem, Kerry said negotiations toward a Gaza cease-fire were making some progress as he met for a second time this week with Ban. "We certainly have made steps forward," Kerry said. "There's still work to be done."

White House deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken meanwhile said Hamas must be denied the ability to "rain down rockets on Israeli civilians."

"One of the results, one would hope, of a cease-fire would be some form of demilitarization so that this doesn't continue, doesn't repeat itself," Blinken said in an interview with NPR. "That needs to be the end result."

On the ground, meanwhile, Israeli troops backed by tanks and aerial drones clashed with Hamas fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles on the outskirts of Khan Younis, killing at least eight militants, a Palestinian health official said.

The Palestinian Red Crescent was trying to evacuate some 250 people from the area, which has been pummeled by air strikes and tank shelling since early Wednesday.

Hundreds of residents of eastern Khan Younis were seen fleeing their homes as the battle unfolded, flooding into the streets with what few belongings they could carry, many with children in tow. They said they were seeking shelter in nearby U.N. schools.

"The airplanes and airstrikes are all around us," said Aziza Msabah, a resident of Khan Younis. "They are hitting the houses, which are collapsing upon us."

Further north, in the Shijaiyah neighborhood of Gaza City, which saw intense fighting earlier this week, an airstrike demolished a home, killing 30-year-old journalist Abdul Rahman Abu Hean, his grandfather Hassan and his nephew Osama.

Israel also struck the Wafa hospital in Gaza City, which the military says houses a Hamas command center. Basman Ashi, the medical center's director, said all 97 patients and staff were evacuated following Israeli warnings and that no one was hurt in the attack.

Meanwhile, a foreign worker in Israel was killed when a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed near the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on Wednesday, police spokeswoman Luba Samri said. She did not immediately know the worker's nationality.

Israel said five more of its soldiers have died in the conflict, bringing the military's death toll to 32, without providing further details. Two Israeli civilians have been killed in 15 days of fighting.

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