By Sakher Abu El Oun (AFP)
Gaza City, Palestinian Territories – Israeli air strikes on Sunday killed 21 Palestinians in the bloodiest day so far of its massive air campaign on the Gaza Strip, as diplomatic efforts to broker a truce intensified.
With Egypt at the centre of efforts to broker a ceasefire, Palestinian officials said it was possible a deal would be reached “today or tomorrow.”
But there was no letup in the bloodshed in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, with medics saying women and children accounted for most of Sunday’s 21 killed, among them four toddlers, in Israeli strikes from the air.
In the day’s most lethal raid, at least eight members of the same family – four of them children – were among 10 people killed when an Israeli missile destroyed a family home in Gaza City, the health ministry said.
At the scene, medics and bystanders all pitched in to remove the rubble to dig out the bodies in the futile hope of finding survivors, as people watched in shock, some weeping openly.
The latest violence hiked the Palestinian casualty toll to 67 dead and more than 600 injured in almost 100 hours of raids, while three Israelis have been killed and more than 50 injured by rocket fire since Wednesday.
With Israel warning it could further escalate its operations in Gaza, US President Barack Obama on Sunday said it was “preferable” for the Gaza crisis to end without a “ramping up” of Israeli military activity.
“Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory,” Obama said in Thailand. “If that can be accomplished without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza, that is preferable.”
In Cairo, senior Hamas officials said Egyptian-mediated talks with Israel to end the bloodshed were “positive” but now focused on the possible stumbling block of guaranteeing the terms of a truce.
An outcome acceptable to Hamas would involve assurances about the United States, Israel’s main backer, being the “guaranteeing party,” one official said on condition of anonymity.
Security officials in Cairo said an Israeli envoy also arrived in the Egyptian capital on Sunday for the talks.
But Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman insisted that “the first and absolute condition for a truce is stopping all fire from Gaza,” and that all armed groups would have to commit to it.
Earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel was ready to “significantly expand” its operation against Gaza militants ahead of talks with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, on a whirlwind truce mission of the region.
“The army is prepared to significantly expand the operation,” Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting, expressing appreciation for what he said was world leaders’ “understanding of Israel’s right to self-defence.”
Early on Sunday, Israeli aircraft hit two media centres in Gaza City, wounding at least eight journalists, one of whom lost a leg, health ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra told AFP.
Press rights group Reporters without Borders condemned the attack which it said “constitute obstruction of freedom of information.”
But the military defended the strike, saying it had targeted Hamas operational communications and sought to minimise civilian casualties.
Amid the truce efforts, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said “a ground invasion of Gaza would lose Israel a lot of the international support and sympathy that they have in this situation.”
But senior cabinet minister Moshe Yaalon denied Israel was under any pressure from Western allies to agree to a ceasefire. “We don’t feel like we’re under pressure,” he said.
Overnight, there was a brief 10-hour lull in militant rocket attacks which ended at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) after which 125 rockets hit Israel, while scores more were intercepted in mid-flight by the Iron Dome defence system, the army said.
Throughout the day, two were fired at Tel Aviv, triggering air raid sirens in the commercial metropolis for the fourth day. Iron Dome intercepted both, police said.
Since the start of its Operation Pillar of Defence, launched after the killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jaabari in an air strike, the Israeli army says it has struck more than 1,100 targets in Gaza as militants have fired more than 800 rockets over the border.