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Tue 22 Jul 2014 09:36 AM

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Israel keeps up Gaza assaults, Kerry presses for truce

Gaza death toll reaches 539, Israeli death toll rises to 29

Israel keeps up Gaza assaults, Kerry presses for truce

Israel kept up its assaults in the Gaza Strip on
Tuesday, killing three Palestinians in as many air strikes, as US Secretary of
State John Kerry arrived in the region with a mission to seek a ceasefire in
the 14-day-old conflict "as soon as possible."

The deaths in Khan Younis, Beit Hanoun and Beit
Lahiya raised the Palestinian toll to 539 killed, including nearly 100 children
and many other civilians, since the offensive was launched on July 8, Gaza
health officials said.

Israel's death toll also rose to 29, with two
soldiers killed in the past day of fighting, the Israeli military said. The
total includes two civilian killed by rocket fire.

Violence also spread to the occupied West Bank,
where medics said soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man while dispersing
protesters throwing stones at a military jeep.

Israel said a Palestinian shot at a car and
seriously wounded an Israeli in the Nablus area on Tuesday.

Kerry arrived in Cairo on Monday and, during talks
with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said the United States would
provide $47 million in humanitarian aid for Gaza.

Washington is "deeply concerned about the
consequences of Israel's appropriate and legitimate effort to defend
itself," Kerry said. "No country can stand by when rockets are
attacking it."

"But always, in any kind of conflict, there is
a concern about civilians - about children, women, communities that are caught
in it," Kerry said.

A senior State Department official said on Kerry's
flight to Cairo that Washington's goal was to "achieve a cessation of
hostilities as soon as possible," but that the process would be difficult
with the sides far apart on terms for a truce.

Kerry plans to stay in Cairo until Wednesday
morning and has no currently scheduled end to his regional trip, which may
include talks with officials from Qatar, a Gulf state which has relatively
close ties to the Islamist Palestinian group Hamas and hosts its leader, Khaled
Meshaal.

Israel Radio said Islamic Jihad militants in Gaza
said the sides may agree to a five-hour humanitarian truce on Tuesday to allow
civilians to stock up on vital supplies.

Ban was scheduled to fly to Israel on Tuesday for
talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and also to meet Palestinian
officials in the West Bank.

Egypt presented a ceasefire plan last week. Israel
accepted, but Hamas rejected it, saying the group had not been consulted.

An Israeli official in Washington, who declined to
be named, said he wanted Kerry to get Egypt to apply pressure on Hamas.

Israel has signalled it is not in a hurry to
achieve a truce before reaching a goal of crippling Hamas's militant
infrastructure, including rocket arsenals and networks of tunnels threatening
Israelis living along the Gaza frontier.

"This is not the time to talk of a
ceasefire," Gilad Erdan, communications minister and a member of
Netanyahu's inner security cabinet, said on Monday.

"We must complete the mission, and the mission
cannot end until the threat of the tunnels is removed," Erdan told
reporters.

Hamas has demanded Israel and Egypt lift a blockade
on the coastal territory packed with 1.8 million people, mostly refugees, and
that Israel release several hundred Palestinians detained during a search last
month for three Jewish teenagers later found dead. Israel blamed the killings
on Hamas.

"The world must understand that Gaza has
decided to end the blockade by its blood and its heroism," deputy Hamas
leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a televised address.

Hamas announced late on Sunday it had captured an
Israeli soldier in Gaza, displaying a photo ID card and serial number, but no
image of the man in its hands. The Israeli army said it was still investigating
the allegation.

Fighters from Hamas, which controls Gaza, and its
allies have repeatedly tried to infiltrate Israel over the past week through
the tunnels, looking to attack villages and army encampments that dot the
border area.

Netanyahu sent in Israeli ground forces on Thursday
to destroy the tunnels and the militants' missile stockpile.

"Our fighters want to prove that Gaza is a
graveyard for the invaders and Gaza is unbreakable," Haniyeh said on
television.

The Health Ministry in Gaza said four people were
killed and 70 were wounded on Monday at Al-Aqsa hospital, when an Israeli tank
shell slammed into its third floor, which housed operating theatres and an intensive
care unit.

The International Committee of the Red Cross issued
a statement condemning the shelling of the hospital "in the strongest
terms". It said the hospital came under direct fire at least four times
and life-saving equipment had been severely damaged.

The Israeli military, which has accused Hamas
militants of firing rockets from the grounds of Gaza hospitals and seeking
refuge there, had no comment.

Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter
Lerner told reporters that the main focus of fighting on Monday remained the
Shejaia district, east of Gaza City, where some 72 Palestinians, many of them
civilians, were killed on Sunday.

In its push into Shejaia, Israel suffered its worst
losses in the offensive, with the 13 soldiers killed on Sunday marking the
army's heaviest one-day loss in battle since 2006.

On Monday, 131 rockets were fired from Gaza, 17 of
which were shot down by the Iron Dome interceptor system.

A three-hour lull in rocket fire ended when several
barrages were shot at southern Israeli towns before dawn on Tuesday, and sirens
went off to alert people to take cover.