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Gaza battles rage amid truce push

Prospects for a quick end to the fighting in Gaza were slim as Palestinian families fled fierce battles and the death toll rose to more than 700 Palestinians and 34 Israelis.

Underscoring the challenges facing international negotiators shuttling around the Middle East in a high-profile bid to end the bloodshed, the leader of Hamas insisted the Islamic militants would not relent until their main demand of lifting an Egyptian-Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip is met.

On the ground, meanwhile, Israeli troops backed by tanks and aerial drones clashed with Hamas fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles on the outskirts of Khan Younis, killing at least eight militants, according to a Palestinian health official.

Hundreds of people fled their homes as the battle unfolded, flooding into the streets with what few belongings they could carry, many with children in tow. They said they were seeking shelter in nearby UN schools.

“The aeroplanes and airstrikes are all around us,” said Aziza Msabah, a resident of the city in the southern Gaza Strip. “They are hitting the houses, which are collapsing upon us.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry, in Jerusalem, said of the negotiations: “We certainly have made steps forward. There’s still work to be done.”

Israel has insisted it must substantially curb the military capabilities of the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, a position that appears to have gained support within the US administration.

While Hamas has demanded the lifting of a crippling Israeli and Egyptian blockade on the impoverished coastal territory it has ruled since 2007.

Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said in a televised speech that the opening of the border crossings was a red line.

“When it comes to the balance of power in this crisis between us and Israel, they are the executioners, the aggressors, the occupiers, the settlers, and we are the true owners of the land,” he said from his home-in-exile in Doha, Qatar.

“We will not accept anything but the end of the siege.”

The US, Israel and the EU all consider Hamas a terrorist organisation, though the UN does not.

White House deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken said there must be a way forward that does not involve Hamas having the ability to “rain down rockets on Israeli civilians”.

He said: “One of the results, one would hope, of a ceasefire would be some form of demilitarisation so that this doesn’t continue, doesn’t repeat itself.

“That needs to be the end result.”

The Hamas leader, however, rejected that idea, saying: “Some are talking under the table about disarming the resistance. No one can take away the resistance’s arms.”

He also dismissed Israel’s assertion that it tries to avoid civilian casualties but Hamas puts them in danger by hiding weapons and fighters in civilian areas.

US officials have downplayed expectations for an immediate, lasting truce between Israel and Hamas. But Mr Kerry said limited progress has been made.

“We’re doing this for one simple reason: The people in the Palestinian territories, the people in Israel, are all living under the threat or reality of immediate violence,” he said.

“And this needs to end, for everybody. We need to find a way forward that works. And it’s not violence.”

Israel launched a massive air campaign on July 8 to stop relentless Hamas rocket fire into Israel and expanded it last week to a ground war aimed at destroying tunnels the military says Hamas has constructed from Gaza into Israel for attacks against Israelis.

At least 74 Palestinians were killed yesterday, raising the overall death toll in the 16-day war to 702, according to Gaza health ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra.

Israel said five more of its soldiers were killed, bringing the military’s death toll to 32. Two Israeli civilians also have died, and a Thai worker in Israel was killed when a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed near the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, police spokeswoman Luba Samri said.

An Israeli airstrike demolished a home in Gaza’s Shijaiyah neighbourhood, killing 30-year-old journalist Abdul Rahman Abu Hean, his grandfather and a nephew, according to health officials and relatives.

Israel also struck the Wafa hospital in Gaza City, which the military says houses a Hamas command centre.

Basman Ashi, the medical centre’s director, said all 97 patients and staff were evacuated following Israeli warnings and that no one was hurt in the attack.

As the Gaza death toll mounted, two Palestinian men were killed in separate clashes with Israeli soldiers near the West Bank City of Bethlehem, doctors said, a potentially ominous development in an area that has so far been relatively quiet.

Israel has launched more than 3,300 airstrikes since the conflict erupted, while more than 2,250 Palestinian militant rockets have been fired at Israel.

The Israeli toll from the rocket strikes has been minimised by the success of the “Iron Dome” defence system, but it has not been 100%.

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