Diplomatic efforts to mediate a cease-fire in Gaza intensified Tuesday, as Israeli warplanes continued to bombard Hamas targets, militants responded with more rockets, and Israeli military officials confirmed the identity of a missing soldier presumed dead.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met in Cairo in an effort to end the conflict. The top U.S. diplomat said an Egyptian initiative could be the framework for a cease-fire, a proposal Israel said a week ago it would accept, even as Hamas rejected it.
Ban arrived in Jerusalem late Tuesday afternoon and met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling for an urgent end to the death and suffering.
"My message to Israelis and Palestinians is the same: Stop fighting. Start talking. And take on the root causes of the conflict so that we are not back to the same position in another six months or a year," Ban said.
"We must address these underlying issues," said Ban, "including the mutual recognition, occupation, despair and denial of dignity so people do not feel they have to resort to violence as a means of expressing their grievances. Military actions will not increase Israel's stability and security in the longer term."
Netanyahu responded by saying Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza, refuses to recognize Israel and calls for its destruction. He also said Hamas rejects the two-state solution that has been accepted by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
"In the face of such extremism, in the face of such violence, in the face of such terror, Israel has no option but to defend itself,” Netanyahu concluded. “And this is what we are doing, as is our right.”
"Hamas," said Netanyahu, "is like ISIS, Hamas is like al-Qaida, Hamas is like Hezbollah, Hamas is like Boko Haram and there are so many others of these Islamist groups that defy modernity, that reject pluralism, that reject respect of human rights, that use its [their] own people as human shields, that attack indiscriminately civilians. This is part of a larger pattern."
But as they talked, Israeli warplanes continued to bombard Hamas targets in Gaza, while the militants fired more rockets into Israel.
Ban flew to Israel from Egypt, where he met with Egyptian officials and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as part of the mediation effort.
Missing Israeli soldier identified
Israel Defense Forces named Sergeant Oron Shaul as unaccounted for in Gaza, the Jerusalem Post reported and news services reported. The 21-year-old was among seven Israeli soldiers whose armored vehicle was hit by an anti-tank missile fired by Palestinian fighters Sunday morning. The other six were confirmed dead.
It’s unclear whether Shaul is alive or dead, the paper reported, noting the military is urgently working to confirm his status.
The military’s announcement Tuesday followed a claim by Hamas that it had kidnapped an Israeli soldier Sunday during heavy fighting on the Gaza border, the Jerusalem Post said.
Israel’s chief military spokesman said on Israel Radio that "we are still trying to locate one soldier from the team," Reuters quoted Brigadier-General Motti Almoz as saying.
Death toll climbs
Israel kept up its assaults in the Gaza strip, pummeling a wide range of targets. Overnight, it bombed five mosques, a sports complex and the home of the late Hamas military chief, a Gaza police official said.
There has been no let-up in cross-border rocket fire either, with 116 rockets hitting Israel on Monday, one striking the greater Tel Aviv area, and another 17 shot down.
Israeli officials said the 15 days of rockets, missile attacks and air strikes had killed 29 Israelis, including two civilians.
The Gaza Health Ministry reported at least 609 Palestinians have been killed since the offensive's July 8 launch, the AP reported.
The U.N. has said at least three-fourths of them were civilians, among them scores of children.
On Tuesday alone, at least 23 people were killed in fresh Israeli strikes, Gaza health officials said. Five were members of the same family who died in a strike on Deir al-Balah in central Gaza. Four of the victims were women, an official said.
Another 3,640 people have been wounded, authorities said.
A spokesman for the U.N. Office for Humanitarian Assistance in Geneva, Jens Laerke, said that in densely populated Gaza, "there is literally no safe place for civilians."
Since the offensive, more than 100,000 Gazans have fled their homes, seeking shelter in 69 schools run by the Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA), the French news agency AFP reported.
In Tel Aviv, hundreds of Israelis demonstrated in support of their soldiers. In neighboring Jaffa, hundreds of Israeli-Arabs demonstrated against the Israeli offensive and in support of Hamas.
Israel has signaled it is not in a hurry to achieve a truce before reaching a goal of crippling Hamas' militant infrastructure, including rocket arsenals and networks of tunnels threatening Israelis living along the Gaza frontier.
Hamas has demandedthat Israel and Egypt lift a blockade on the coastal territory packed with 1.8 million people, mostly refugees, and that Israel release several hundred Palestinians detained during a search last month for three Jewish teenagers later found dead. Israel blamed the killings on Hamas.
Given the violence, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday announced it was prohibiting U.S. flights to Israel. Major lines including US Airways and United have suspended flights to and from Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport after a rocket fired by militants landed nearthe airport.
VOA's Scott Bobb contributed to this report, with some information also provided by Reuters, AFP and AP.