The death toll in Gaza topped 700 on Thursday as Israeli tank fire before dawn killed 16 people in the Hamas-dominated coastal territory, including six members of the same family, Palestinian health officials said.
The continued violence defied world efforts to achieve a ceasefire between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas after 17 days of fighting, though some officials voiced optimism that a limited truce may be within reach.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, flying back from Israel to Cairo for more talks with Egyptian mediators, reported some progress in ceasefire talks.
An Egyptian official said on Wednesday a humanitarian truce may go into effect by the weekend, in time for the Eid al-Fitr festival, Islam’s biggest annual celebration that follows the fasting month of Ramadan.
However, a senior US official said this was a U.S. hope but a truce was by no means locked in.
“It would not be accurate to say that we expect a ceasefire by the weekend,” said the US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We are continuing to work on it, but it is not set at this point.”
Israel’s security cabinet released no decision after meeting late into the night on a proposed humanitarian truce under which fighting would cease immediately but negotiations for terms for an extended deal would begin only in several days’ time.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, speaking in Qatar, said his fighters had made gains against Israel and expressed support for a humanitarian truce, but only if Israel eased restrictions on Gaza’s 1.8 million Palestinians.
“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.
Israel has signalled it prefers to press on with its ground troops offensive to find and destroy Hamas’s rocket stores and wipe out a vast network of tunnels Israel sees as having been built for the purpose of infiltrating its territory.