No end to fighting until Israel ends Gaza blockade, Hamas says
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Flights to Tel Aviv resumed Thursday as US Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up regional talks and headed to Cairo to push for a ceasefire in Gaza. Hamas's exiled leader has vowed no end to the fighting unless Israel ends its eight-year blockade.
Kerry was returning to Egypt on a renewed push for a ceasefire after meeting Wednesday with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank. Kerry held talks the same day with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and UN chief Ban Ki-moon in Jerusalem.
“We have certainly made some steps forward," Kerry said, before adding: "There is still work to be done."
Flights to Tel Aviv were halted on Tuesday over fears of rocket attacks in the area around Ben Gurion airport. The ban was renewed a day later, prompting Hamas to hail the suspension of the flights as a "great victory for the resistance".
Speaking Wednesday from his base in Doha, Qatar, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal praised the group's gains against Israel and said he supported a humanitarian truce.
But he said a ceasefire would only be acceptable in exchange for easing Gazans' plight by ending the Israeli blockade of the enclave.
"Let's agree first on the demands and on implementing them, and then we can agree on the zero hour for a ceasefire," he said. "We will not accept any proposal that does not lift the blockade ... We do not desire war and we do not want it to continue, but we will not be broken by it."
Israel imposed the blockade in 2006 after Hamas and other militants abducted an Israeli soldier in a deadly cross-border raid. It tightened the restrictions in 2007 after Hamas seized power in Gaza from forces loyal to Abbas, but has eased them somewhat in recent years.
Egypt tightened its own restrictions last year after the overthrow of a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo. It has also destroyed many of the cross-border smuggling tunnels that have sustained Gaza’s economy.
Gaza fighting continues
Hamas's armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, rejected an Egypt-brokered ceasefire deal last week as Israel's security cabinet accepted the truce.
The skies over southern Israel have remained relatively quiet in recent hours, Israel's army said, in what has been the calmest night since the Israeli operation in Gaza was launched on July 8. Since 5am (2am GMT), just three mortars had struck the south, a spokeswoman said.
But the fighting continued in Gaza, with medics saying more than 50 people were killed on Thursday, mostly in the south, raising the overall Palestinian toll to 736. Rights groups say more than 80 percent of the victims have been civilians.
Israel has lost at least 32 soldiers in clashes within Gaza and in Hamas raids, in which the group's members slip across the fortified frontier using tunnels they have built into Israel. Three civilians have also been killed in rocket attacks out of Gaza, including a Thai labourer hit on Wednesday.
Most of the Palestinian victims were killed in and around Khuzaa, a flashpoint area east of Khan Yunis, which has been the site of intensive fighting since Tuesday.
On Wednesday the Red Cross managed to evacuate 150 people from the area following negotiations with both sides. Another convoy of 10 ambulances entered the area early on Thursday, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross told AFP.
The Red Cross also negotiated the evacuation of another 70 people from the northern town of Beit Hanun and a third group from Shejaiya near Gaza City, including a family of 11.
Schools storing weapons
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said Wednesday that there was “a strong possibility” that Israel was committing war crimes in Gaza. Pillay also condemned the indiscriminate firing of rockets out of Gaza.
The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) said it would launch an international inquiry into the alleged rights violations.
Netanyahu denounced the UN inquiry as a “travesty” and said the rights body should be investigating Hamas instead.
“The HRC should be launching an investigation into Hamas’s decision to turn hospitals into military command centres, use schools as weapons depots, and place missile batteries next to playgrounds, private homes and mosques,” he said.
UN Secretary-General Ban, who has also been on a truce-seeking mission to the region, also lashed out at the Gaza militants for using schools in the armed conflict.
He expressed “outrage and regret” that rockets had recently been found inside a UN school for refugees for the second time during the conflict.
Ban said storing the rockets in this way “turned schools into potentially military targets, endangering the lives of innocent children”, along with those of UN employees and the tens of thousands of sheltering Palestinians. He urged an investigation into the practice.
France approves Gaza aid
French President François Hollande announced an €11 million ($14.8 million) aid package for the besieged Gaza Strip on Thursday.
An adviser to Hollande said the humanitarian aid – eight million of which will be given to the Palestinian Authority and the remainder to UN bodies and NGOs working in Gaza – was approved after a meeting with non-governmental organisations working in the strife-torn region.
The NGOs "highlighted the gravity of the situation, the scale of the humanitarian needs of the civilian population and the difficulty of humanitarian workers in getting to the victims", Hollande's office said.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)