GAZA / JERUSALEM —
Gaza fighting raged on Wednesday, displacing thousands more Palestinians in the battered territory as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said indirect truce talks between Israel and Hamas had made some progress.
While pressing a 15-day-old offensive, Israel scrambled to contain economic damage from a halt of flights to Tel Aviv's main airport by U.S. and European airlines spooked by the long-range rocket salvoes of Hamas and other Gaza Strip guerrillas.
Adding to pressure on Israel, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said there was "a strong possibility'' that it was committing war crimes in Gaza, where 668 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have died in the fighting.
Israel denied the suggestion, stepping up the war of words and accusing Hamas of using fellow Gazans as human shields.
Israel launched its offensive on July 8 to halt rocket salvoes by Hamas and its allies, which have struggled under an Israeli-Egyptian economic blockade on Gaza and angered by a crackdown on their supporters in the nearby occupied West Bank.
After aerial and naval bombardment failed to quell the outgunned guerrillas, Israel poured ground forces into the Gaza Strip last Thursday, looking to knock out Hamas's rocket stores and destroy a vast, underground network of tunnels.
"We are meeting resistance around the tunnels ... they are constantly trying to attack us around and in the tunnels. That is the trend,'' Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said on Wednesday.
Military losses rise
Hamas and a smaller Gaza faction, Islamic Jihad, said they killed several Israeli soldiers in two separate ambushes on Wednesday. Israel had no immediate comment on those claims.
Some 29 troops have been confirmed killed so far in the conflagration. Three civilians have died in rocket attacks out of Gaza, including a foreign laborer hit on Wednesday.
The military says one of its soldiers is also missing and believes he might be dead. Hamas says it has captured him, but has not released a picture of him in their hands.
Airlines from the United States and Europe canceled more flights to Israel on Wednesday after rocket fire from Gaza hit near the county's main international airport earlier this week.
Citing a "potentially hazardous situation" as Israel and Hamas continue to exchange fire, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration renewed a 24-hour ban on U.S. carriers like Delta, American, and United from flying to Israel's Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf acknowledged Wednesday that Hamas has rockets that could reach Ben Gurion airport, but the accuracy of those weapons is limited.
"During current fighting Hamas rockets have landed north of the airport although the accuracy of their rockets does remain limited," she said
The FAA action represented a public relations coup for Hamas, which is anxious to dent Israel's global image. However, the Tel Aviv stock exchange and Shekel were flat, with traders showing little immediate concern about the flight stoppages.
An Israeli official said Netanyahu had asked Kerry to help restore the U.S. flights. A U.S. official said the Obama administration would not "overrule the FAA'' on a security precaution but noted the ban would be reviewed after 24 hours.
However, U.S. carrier Delta Air Lines said it would extend its suspension of flights on Wednesday, as did Germany's Lufthansa and Air Berlin as Polish airline LOT.
Clouds of black smoke hung over Gaza, some 65-km (40 miles) south of Ben Gurion, with the regular thud of artillery and tank shells filling the air.
Palestinian medics said two worshippers were killed and 30 wounded in an attack on a mosque in the heart of the densely populated Zeitoun neighborhood in eastern Gaza City.
In southern Abassan and Khuzaa villages, residents said they were besieged by Israeli snipers who wounded two Palestinians as they tried to emerge from hiding with white flags in hand. Israeli tanks fired shells near ambulances, discouraging their approach to recover casualties, witnesses said.
In a move that could effectively turn Abbas into the main Palestinian point person for any Gaza truce, his umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on Wednesday formally supported core conditions set by the Hamas-led fighters.
These demands include the release of hundreds of Hamas supporters recently arrested in the nearby West Bank and an end to the Egyptian-Israeli blockade of Gaza, which has stymied the economy and made it near impossible for anyone to travel abroad.
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 recognize Israel's right to exist, balked at Cairo's original, barebones offer. The dispute was further complicated by distrust between Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Hamas.
Egyptian sources said a unified Palestinian position could help achieve a deal. Unlike Hamas, Abbas and his Western-backed PLO have pursued peacemaking with Israel for two decades.
Gaza's Health Ministry said 49 Palestinians were killed on Wednesday, many of them in the southern town of Khan Younis -- one of the focal points of Israel's recent assault.
In the far north, residents continued to flee Beit Hanoun as Israeli tanks thrust deeper into the border town and destroyed nearby orchards in their search for hidden Hamas tunnels.
"Columns of people are heading west of Beit Hanoun, looking for a safe shelter. This is not war, this is annihilation,'' said 17-year-old Hamed Ayman. "I once dreamt of becoming a doctor. Today I am homeless. They should watch out for what I could become next.''
Gaza officials said that so far in the 16-day conflict, 475 houses had been totally destroyed by Israeli fire and 2,644 partially damaged. Some 46 schools, 56 mosques and seven hospitals had also suffered varying degrees of destruction.
"There seems to be a strong possibility that international humanitarian law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes,'' the U.N.'s Pillay told an emergency session at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
She also condemned indiscriminate, militant rocket and mortar attacks out of Gaza.
Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said the U.N. rights council was an "anti-Israel'' body.
"Israel is acting according to international law. It is acting against terrorism. It is regrettable civilians are killed, but when we call on them to vacate and Hamas calls on them to stay, then that is what happens,'' she told Israel Radio.