JERUSALEM — Washington's top diplomat said global efforts to end 17 days of bloodshed in Gaza were progressing as the Palestinian death toll rose to 718 on Thursday and airlines kept flights to Israel suspended over rocket fears.
A family of six, including a five-year-old girl and boy of three, were among 21 killed in Israeli airstrikes on Thursday as a flurry of intensive diplomacy efforts by world leaders pressed on in the region. Another two died from wounds sustained earlier.
The Islamist Hamas movement rejected any truce without the lifting of Israel's eight-year blockade on Gaza.
"We will not accept any initiative that does not lift the blockade on our people and that does not respect their sacrifices," Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said. Hamas hailed the suspension of Tel Aviv flights by many world airlines as a "great victory."
"The success of Hamas in closing Israeli airspace is a great victory for the resistance, and is the crown of Israel's failure," spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said as traffic to Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport slowed to a trickle after a rocket hit close to runways on Tuesday.
As US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN chief Ban Ki-moon held talks in Jerusalem, they said they had pooled their efforts in the hope of boosting the quest for a truce.
"We have certainly made some steps forward, but there is still work to be done," Kerry said as he met the UN chief for the second time this week.
"We are now joining our forces in strength to make a ceasefire as soon as possible," Ban said, warning there was no time to lose as concern mounted over the rising civilian body count.
The US diplomat offered a similar message to the Palestinians as he met president Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
"We have in the last 24 hours made some progress in moving toward that goal," he said before heading to Tel Aviv for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The men met for about two hours but made no statements after their talks. Kerry then left for Cairo and Netanyahu opened a meeting of his security cabinet.
Britain joined the truce efforts with new Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond holding late-night talks with Abbas, saying a ceasefire was not enough. "We will work for a stable solution that allows Palestinians and Israelis to live in peace together," Hammond said.
Ban also brought up the Gaza conflict in a meeting with Saudi King Abdullah in Jeddah, according to the official SPA news agency.
Death toll mounts
Palestinian medics said Israeli attacks on Thursday hiked the death toll to 718 with a Gaza-based rights group saying more than 80 per cent of them were civilians.
Thursday saw 21 killed, and 66 died in bombardments on Wednesday, medics said – most of them in Khuzaa on the Israeli border, close to the southern city of Khan Yunis.
In the occupied West Bank, a Palestinian died Wednesday after being shot by Israeli troops, Palestinian officials said.
The Israeli army said three more soldiers were killed in combat inside Gaza on Wednesday, raising the total number of soldiers killed since the start of a ground operation on July 17 to 32.
A Thai farm labourer also died when a rocket fired from Gaza struck the greenhouse where he was working in southern Israel, police said.
On the ground, the fighting was briefly suspended in several flashpoint areas to allow ambulances to extricate the wounded, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.
A spokeswoman said seven ambulances had entered Shejaiya near Gaza City and another nine ambulances had entered Khuzaa, while a third convoy had entered Beit Hanun in the north.
In Gaza City, hundreds of people, mostly women and children, packed into the pews of Saint Porphyrios Greek Orthodox church seeking shelter from the violence outside.
Kerry's arrival in Tel Aviv came a day after a Gaza rocket struck close to the main international airport, prompting the US Federal Aviation Authority to ban commercial flights to and from Israel for at least 24 hours.
It renewed the ban for another 24 hours on Wednesday, citing the "potentially hazardous situation."
And its European counterpart advised all carriers to avoid Tel Aviv "until further notice" in a move mirrored Wednesday by Royal Jordanian and Turkish Airlines, prompting Hamas to hail a "great victory."
UN slams Israel, Hamas
Kerry began his regional mission in Cairo, discussing ceasefire proposals with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, that he said provided a "framework" to end the fighting.
An initial Egyptian proposal calling for a halt to hostilities ahead of talks was accepted by Israel early last week but rejected by Hamas, which wants agreement on a comprehensive package before holding its fire. A senior Hamas official in Cairo said the militants wanted detailed guarantees that Israel would ease its blockade of the enclave.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to talk about the negotiations, said he hoped they would bear fruit "in a few days". "The atmosphere in the talks is positive," he said in a telephone interview.
As the violence raged on, UN rights chief Navi Pillay condemned both Israel and Hamas at an emergency session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
She said Israeli attacks which had killed civilians, among them children, "could amount to war crimes" but also denounced Hamas for its "indiscriminate attacks" on Israeli civilians.
The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights said 81.5 per cent of the dead were civilians, 24 per cent of them children.
The UN Human Rights Council voted to launch a probe into Israel's Gaza offensive.
The United States was the sole member to vote against, while European countries abstained.
A statement from the Israeli prime minister's office said the council's decision was "a travesty and should be rejected by decent people everywhere." — AFP