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As Israel continues to bomb Gaza, many airlines suspend flights to Tel Aviv

GAZA/JERUSALEM, July 23 (Reuters): Israeli forces pounded multiple sites across the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, including the enclave's sole power plant, and said it was meeting stiff resistance from Hamas Islamists, as diplomats sought to end the bloodshed.

In a blow to Israel's economy, US and European air carriers halted flights in and out of Tel Aviv citing security worries after a militant rocket from Gaza hit a house near the airport. Israel urged a re-think, saying its airspace was safe.

US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Egypt and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Israel, spearheading international efforts to secure a ceasefire. Hamas ally Qatar was also working in the background to seek a solution.

Israel launched its offensive on July 8 to halt missile salvoes by Hamas Islamists, which was angered by a crackdown on its supporters in the nearby occupied West Bank and suffering economic hardship because of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

After failing to halt the militant barrage through days of aerial bombardment, Israel sent ground troops into Gaza last Thursday, looking to knock out Hamas's missile stores and destroy a vast, underground network of tunnels.

Some 630 Palestinians, many of them children and civilians have died in the conflagration, including a seven-year-old hit by a shell in southern Gaza early Wednesday, a medic said.

Some 29 Israeli soldiers have been killed. Two civilians have been slain by rocket fire. The military says one of its soldiers is also missing and believes he might be dead. Hamas says it has seized him, but has not released his picture.

The Palestinian decision-making body led by US-backed President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday endorsed demands by Hamas for halting Gaza hostilities with Israel, a closing of ranks that may help Egyptian-mediated truce efforts.

Egypt has tried to get both sides to hold fire and then negotiate terms for protracted calm in Gaza, which has been rocked by regular bouts of violence since Israel unilaterally pulled out of the territory in 2005.

Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel's right to exist, has baulked at Cairo's offer, saying it wanted assurances of relief from an Israeli-Egyptian blockade and other concessions. The dispute was further complicated by distrust between Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Hamas.

Israel faced mounting international alarm at the civilian death toll, as well as increased economic pressure from lost tourism revenues after the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) took the rare step on Tuesday of banning flights to Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion International Airport for at least 24 hours.

European airlines also cancelled flights to Israel, whose own carriers continued to operate.

An Israeli official said Netanyahu had asked Kerry to help restore the US flights. A US official said the Obama administration would not “overrule the FAA” on a security precaution but noted the ban would be reviewed after 24 hours.