By Batsheva Sobelman and Laura King, Los Angeles Times
JERUSALEM — Israel again pounded the Gaza Strip with bombardment on Thursday, driving up the Palestinian death toll to at least 720, while militants fired a flurry of rockets into Israeli territory, with most either falling harmlessly or intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile defense system.
In the 17th day of the confrontation between Israeli forces and the militant group Hamas, diplomatic efforts were moving ahead on a number of fronts, though a cease-fire accord remained elusive. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, back in Cairo after a day of shuttle diplomacy in Israel and the West Bank, was conferring Thursday with Egyptian officials, according to Egyptian media reports.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, in Israel for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, expressed hope for a speedy truce. While acknowledging Israel’s right to defend itself, Hammond said his government was “gravely concerned by the ongoing heavy level” of civilian deaths and injuries in Gaza.
“We want to see a cease-fire quickly agreed (upon),” he said.
Netanyahu said Israel was trying to minimize civilian casualties, but declared that “we cannot give our attackers immunity or impunity.”
Israel said it had detained dozens of suspected militants overnight in Gaza, and Israeli media carried images of the captured men in their underwear being marched toward or across the frontier, bound for a military detention center in southern Israel.
Israeli media reports also cited military sources as saying that 500 militants affiliated with Hamas or other Islamist armed groups have been killed since the start of the offensive. However, estimates from the United Nations and others have estimated that up to three-fourths of the dead are civilians, many of them women and children.
For a third day on Thursday, most international flights to and from Tel Aviv were canceled, after a rocket fell Tuesday near Ben Gurion International Airport. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration late Wednesday lifted a ban on American carriers flying into or out of Ben Gurion, but only US Airways had so far announced a resumption of service, and most European and regional airlines were continuing their suspensions.
Israel’s summer tourism season, already dampened by the outbreak of fighting, has been hit hard by the curtailed air service, and industry officials were voicing concern about long-term economic damage. Hamas has trumpeted the flight suspensions as an important military success.
While most of Israel’s casualties have been military — with 32 troops killed to date — three civilians have died on the Israeli side of the frontier. After a Thai farm worker was killed Wednesday by a mortar in the fields of a farm community close to Gaza, Thailand urged Israel to transfer about 4,000 of its nationals to safer areas and provide better protection for them.
Special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem and staff writer King from Cairo.
AFP Photo / Jack Guez
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