Bloodbath in Gaza continued unabated on Wednesday with Israel and Hamas refusing to back down in the conflict that has killed over 660 Palestinians and 31 Israelis, even as US Secretary of State John Kerry said his ceasefire negotiations in Jerusalem were making progress.
Several international airlines today halted flights to Israel indefinitely, citing security concerns after a rocket from Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip landed near Israel's biggest airport, Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. Kerry flew into Tel Aviv from Cairo despite US warnings over airline safety and held hectic parleys in Jerusalem, also meeting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
"We have certainly made some steps forward, but there is still work to be done," Kerry said. Kerry, during his whirlwind tour of the region, will also meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
On US President Barack Obama's direction, Kerry on Wednesday held talks with Egyptian and Arab League officials in Cairo to push for an "immediate cessation of hostilities". Ban also voiced guarded hope for ending the violence, as efforts to broker a truce in the the 16-day conflict hastened.
"We are now joining our forces in strength to make a ceasefire as soon as possible, but there is still some detailed way which we have to make," he said. "We do not have much time to wait and lose," Ban said after speaking with Netanyahu in the morning. Fighting shifted to Tuffah, east of Gaza City, today.
Hamas fired a rocket-propelled grenade at an Israeli personnel carrier. Israeli soldiers died in the clash, Hamas said. An Israeli strike hit a mosque in Gaza City, killing one person and wounding 45 more.
The Israeli military said it hit more than 187 targets overnight, most of them in Shaja'ia, a neighborhood east of Gaza City near the border with Israel. The death toll mounted as neither side showed any sign of backing down. Palestinian health officials said more than 660 Palestinians had been killed and 4,040 wounded. Some 70 to 80% of them are civilians, according to the UN.
Twenty-nine Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians have also been killed in the conflict. United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said more than 118,300 Palestinians have now taken refuge in its shelters. It says 43 per cent of Gaza has been affected by evacuation warnings or declared no-go zones.
In the latest incident, Israeli tank fire killed five people, including two children, in southern Gaza. Also, a foreign worker in southern Israel died after being hit by a mortar round fired from the Gaza Strip, police said.
In Geneva, UN rights chief Navi Pillay said Israel's military actions in the Gaza Strip could amount to war crimes, while also condemning indiscriminate rocket attacks by Hamas.
"There seems to be a strong possibility that international law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes," Pillay told an emergency session on Israel's Gaza offensive at the UN Human Rights Council.
Netanyahu sought Kerry's help in restoring American commercial flights to Israel that had been cancelled amid ongoing rocket attacks from Gaza, Ynet reported. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had yesterday told US carriers to cancel all flights to Israel for 24 hours after a Palestinian rocket struck near Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Hamas' armed wing had last week warned international airlines to stop flying to Israel, threatening to target the airport, but did not deter them from flying to the Jewish state till on Tuesday. Over 80 flights, American and European, have been cancelled since the FAA orders were issued on Tuesday.
Israel heavily depends on revenues generated from inbound tourists and such moves can potentially have a very damaging impact on its tourism sector. Israel's national carrier El Al has added additional flights to build confidence and make up for the cancelled flights, but a large number of Israelis are still stranded en route to the Jewish state after their flights were diverted and are now grounded in cities from Berlin to Istanbul.
New York's former Jewish Mayor Michael Bloomberg has urged the FAA to "reverse course" and permit US airlines to fly to Israel. Bloomberg will himself fly on an El Al flight to Tel Aviv in an act of "solidarity with the Israeli people and to demonstrate that it is safe to fly in and out of Israel." "The US flight restrictions are a mistake that hands Hamas an underserved victory and should be lifted immediately," he said.
Delta was the first carrier to halt flights to and from Israel after diverting a flight carrying 273 passengers bound for Ben Gurion airport to Paris. It was followed by America's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – which has halted all US flights to and from Israel – Air France and Dutch airline KLM.