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Palestine death toll jumps to excess of 500

- Alarmed US takes direct role in efforts to secure truce; Israel pounds Gaza day and night

Gaza/Jerusalem, July 21 (Reuters): The Palestinian death toll in an Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip jumped to more than 500 today, as the US, alarmed by escalating civilian bloodshed, took a direct role in efforts to secure a ceasefire.

Despite growing calls for a halt to two weeks of fighting, violence raged on, with Israel pounding the densely-populated coastal strip, killing 28 members of a single family in one strike and four people in an attack on a hospital, medics said.

Israel’s losses also mounted. Following the death of 13 soldiers yesterday, Israel said seven more troops had died today, including four killed when a group of militants tunnelled across the border from Gaza and fired at their jeep.

Israeli aircraft hit back swiftly, killing 10 of the infiltrators from the Islamist group Hamas, the army said.

A day after he was caught by an open microphone saying sarcastically that the Israeli assault was “a hell of a pinpoint operation”, US secretary of state John Kerry flew to Cairo to try to secure an end to hostilities. Speaking in Washington, President Barack Obama said he was increasingly worried by the conflict.

“We have serious concerns about the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths and the loss of Israeli lives, and that is why it now has to be our focus and the focus of the international community to bring about a ceasefire,” he told reporters at the White House.

The Islamist group Hamas, which inflicted the biggest single loss on Israeli forces in eight years when it killed 13 soldiers in Gaza yesterday, said it would not lay down its arms until a series of demands were met — including an end to a blockade imposed on the territory by both Israel and Egypt.

“The world must understand that Gaza has decided to end the blockade by its blood and its heroism,” deputy Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a televised address.

At Al-Aqsa hospital in the central Gaza Strip, four persons were killed and 70 wounded when an Israeli tank shell slammed into the third floor, housing operating theatres and an intensive care unit, the health ministry said.

The Israeli military, which has accused Hamas militants of firing rockets from the grounds of Gaza hospitals and seeking refuge there, had no immediate comment. Non-stop attacks lifted the Palestinian death toll to 523, including almost 100 children, since fighting started on July 8, Gaza health officials said. Israel says 18 of its soldiers have also died along with two civilians.

Lerner told reporters that the main focus of fighting remained the Shejaia district, east of Gaza City, where some 72 Palestinians, many of them civilians, were killed yesterday. In its push into Shejaia, Israel suffered its worst losses in the offensive, with the 13 soldiers killed yesterday marking the army's heaviest one-day loss in battle since 2006. The carnage energised world leaders to step up efforts to find a way out of the confrontation.

 
 
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