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Wed 23 Jul 2014 04:45 PM

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Update: US lifts ban on flights to Israel as Gaza toll tops 700

Kerry reports truce progress; Israel wants more time

Update: US lifts ban on flights to Israel as Gaza toll tops 700
US Secretary of State John Kerry. (AFP/Getty Images)

Latest update (July 24, 11:53pm): Israel won a
partial reprieve from the economic pain of its Gaza war on Thursday with the
lifting of a US ban on commercial flights to Tel Aviv, as fighting pushed the
Palestinian death toll over 700.

A truce remained elusive despite intensive
mediation bids. Palestinians said residents of two southern villages were trapped
by tank shelling, preventing evacuation of casualties.

Israel says it needs more time to eradicate
cross-border tunnels used by Hamas for attacks, while the Palestinian Islamists
demand the blockade on the Gaza Strip be lifted.

With Washington's encouragement, Egypt has been
trying to mediate a limited humanitarian ceasefire. One Cairo official said on
Wednesday that could go into effect by the weekend, in time for the Eid Al Fitr
festival, Islam's biggest annual celebration, which follows the fasting month
of Ramadan.

But a senior US official described any truce by the
weekend as unlikely, as did an Israeli cabinet minister who said the hunt for
tunnels would take at least four days to complete.

"I do not see a ceasefire in the coming days
where the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) leave," Science Minister Yaakov
Peri, a former security chief who advises Israel's top strategic
decision-makers, told the Walla news site. "Even if there is a
humanitarian truce, we would continue tackling the tunnels."

The death toll in Gaza reached 718 on Thursday as
Israeli tank fire and other pre-dawn assaults killed 26 people in the
Hamas-dominated coastal enclave, including six members of the same family,
Palestinian health officials said.

In southern Khuzaa and Abassan villages, they said,
Israeli shelling left dead and wounded under rubble, while medical crews could
not risk attending.

Israel has lost 32 soldiers to clashes inside Gaza
and with Hamas raiders who have slipped across the fortified frontier in
tunnels. Rocket and mortar shelling by Hamas and other Palestinian guerrillas
has killed three civilians in Israel.

Such shelling surged last month as Israel cracked
down on Hamas in the occupied West Bank, triggering the July 8 air and sea barrage
in Gaza that escalated into an invasion a week ago.

Though Israel's Iron Dome rocket interceptor has
shot down most of the rockets fired from Gaza, one that came close to Tel
Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport on Tuesday prompted the US Federal Aviation
Administration (FAA) to bar American flights there.

The ensuing wave of cancellations by foreign
airlines emptied Israel's usually bustling international gateway and hurt its
hi-tech economy at the height of summer tourist season. It was hailed as a
victory by Hamas, and prompted an appeal by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu for the Obama administration to intervene.

The FAA said that after reviewing the security
situation it had cancelled the ban late on Wednesday. US Airways, a unit of
American Airlines Group Inc, said on Thursday it was resuming its non-stop Tel
Aviv to Philadelphia service.

Israel predicted other US airlines would follow
suit within hours, though European carriers could take longer. Germany's
Lufthansa and Air Berlin said their suspension of flights to Tel Aviv would
continue to Friday.

"The Europeans did not really deliberate over
this, but acted more as a follow-up to the American decision," said Gadi
Regev, chief of staff for Israel's Civil Aviation Authority.

A number of European flights have been diverted to
Cyprus's Larnaca airport for onward travel to Ben Gurion on Israeli carriers.

In what appeared to be let-up in Palestinian
attacks, the Israeli military said on Thursday only one rocket had been
launched from Gaza overnight. It fell wide, causing no damage.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said his fighters had
made gains against Israel and voiced support for a humanitarian truce, but only
if Israel eased restrictions on Gaza's 1.8 million people, who are also under
an embargo by next-door Egypt.

"Let's agree first on the demands and on
implementing them, and then we can agree on the zero hour for a ceasefire ...
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," Meshaal said on Wednesday in Qatar.

Israel also came under criticism from the UN High
Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who said there was "a strong
possibility" Israel was committing war crimes in Gaza, where medical
officials say most of those killed were civilians.

Pillay also condemned indiscriminate Islamist
rocket fire out of Gaza, and the United Nations Human Rights Council said it
would launch an international inquiry into alleged violations.

A furious Netanyahu denounced the inquiry as a
"travesty".

"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 in a statement.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has also been
on a truce-seeking mission, lashed out at militants in Gaza by expressing
"outrage and regret" at rockets found inside a UN school for
refugees, for the second time during the conflict.

Ban said storing the rockets in the schools
"turned schools into potentially military targets, endangering the lives
of innocent children", along with UN employees and the tens of thousands
of sheltering Palestinians. He urged an investigation.

US Secretary of State John Kerry returned to Egypt
on Wednesday after meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied
West Bank and with Ban and Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

"We have certainly made some steps forward.
There is still work to be done," said Kerry, on one of his busiest
regional visits since Netanyahu called off US-sponsored peace talks over
Abbas's power-share deal with Hamas in April.

Gaza has been rocked by regular bouts of violence
since Israel unilaterally pulled out of the territory in 2005.

Hamas, which rejects Israel's right to exist,
balked at Egypt's proposal for an unconditional truce, saying its conditions
had to be met in full before any end to the conflict. Israel briefly held fire
last week at Cairo's behest.

The war is exacting a heavy toll on impoverished
Gaza. Palestinian officials say at least 475 houses have been destroyed by
Israeli fire and 2,644 damaged. Some 46 schools, 56 mosques and seven hospitals
have also suffered varying degrees of damage.

Israel says one of its soldiers is missing in Gaza,
and the military believes he might be dead. Hamas says it has captured him but
has not released a picture of him in their hands.

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