Palestinian Gaza death toll soars amid peace push

Israel also suffered its biggest loss since hostilities started, announcing the death of two of its soldiers

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The Palestinian death toll from Israel’s devastating assault on the Gaza Strip reached 320 as international efforts to broker a truce between the Jewish state and Hamas militants continued.

Israel also suffered its biggest loss since hostilities between the two sides erupted more than two weeks ago, announcing that two of its’ soldiers had been killed by militants who breached the country’s border.

An army statement said the two were killed during a clash with a number of militants who infiltrated Israel through a tunnel from Gaza. Earlier in the day, Hamas said its fighters used one a tunnel to slip into Israel, inflicting casualties.

Saturday was the second day of Israel’s ground offensive into the Gaza strip, which included efforts at destroying rocket launch pads as well as tunnels used by Hamas after the last big flare-up of violence in 2012, Reuters news agency reported.

Reuters quoted military spokesman Lieut. Col. Peter Lerner as saying that 13 tunnels, at least one of them 30 meters deep, and 95 rocket launchers were found and destroyed in the Gaza sweep.

Searches were continuing for what he described as an open-ended mission that had "severely impeded Hamas capabilities.”

Israel sent in ground forces on Thursday after 10 days of air and naval barrages failed to stop rocket fire from Gaza.

Reuters quoted Gaza officials as saying that at least 325 Palestinians, including 70 children, have been killed in the 12-day conflict. Saturday’s death toll of 33 was composed mainly of civilians.

Palestinians also launched at least 18 rockets into Israel on Saturday, killing a man and wounding four people, including two children, in a southern Bedouin Arab village, police said.

At least four Israelis have been killed since the violence began.

No Ceasefire

Egypt has no plans to revise its ceasefire proposal, which Hamas has rejected, Cairo's foreign minister said on Saturday.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon planned to travel to Israel and the Palestinian territories this weekend. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is also looking to secure a ceasefire and was due to travel to regional power Qatar later in the day to see the emir of the Gulf state.

It was not clear whether he would also see Hamas's leader, Khaled Meshaal, who lives in exile in Qatar.

Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius insisted on Saturday that his country's "absolute priority" is to secure a truce in Gaza, saying Egypt’s initiative for a cease-fire enjoys international support.

At a joint news conference with his Jordanian counterpart, Nasser Judeh, Fabius said his regional tour seeks to help "break the spiral of violence and to protect the civilian population as much as possible" in Gaza, where the Israeli bombardment has killed more than 330 Palestinians.

"The human toll is already heavy... and I repeat here in Amman, our absolute priority must be the ceasefire," he told reporters.

"The Egyptian initiative remains on the table and the objective is ceasefire. Jordan, France and other countries support the initiative."

The truce plan, which Egypt had proposed take effect last Tuesday, calls for a ceasefire followed by indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas.

But Hamas rejected the plan, insisting on negotiating key demands such as a guarantee to lift the blockade on Gaza's border crossings before it halts its rocket fire.

"This initiative has been widely supported by the international community and Arab countries," Fabius said.

"So now we need to ensure that the party that has rejected it accepts the plan to avoid losing more human lives," he added, describing the toll in Gaza as "extremely tragic".

Fabius arrived in Amman from Cairo, where here made an "urgent" call for the truce, following talks with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is rallying international support for Cairo's ceasefire proposal while isolating Hamas.

The foreign minister said he would meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night, following the stopover in Amman.

"All countries involved in efforts to stop the bloodshed in Gaza support the cease-fire initiative, which seeks to end the violence and protect civilians," said Judeh, whose country has a 1994 peace treaty with Israel.

Judeh on Friday condemned Israel's "brutal and barbaric aggression on Gaza as well as the targeting of civilians that led to the death or more martyrs", state-run Petra news agency quoted him as telling Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini at a meeting.

(The Associated Press, Reuters and AFP)