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Kerry in Israel for talks, Gaza fighting continues

He was to meet with Israel's prime minster, the Palestinian Authority's president and the UN chief

Israeli troops battled Hamas militants on Wednesday near a southern Gaza Strip town as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pressed ahead with efforts to end the conflict that has killed at least 648 Palestinians and 31 Israelis.

Kerry, who is on a Mideast trip to push for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, landed in Tel Aviv despite a Federal Aviation Administration ban following a Hamas rocket near the airport Tuesday.

Kerry was to meet Wednesday with Israel's prime minster, the Palestinian Authority's president and the United Nations chief in a daylong visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Israel reported that two more of its soldiers have died in the conflict, bringing the military's death toll to 29, but did not elaborate on the circumstances of the latest casualties. Two Israeli civilians have also died in the 15-day fighting.

A Palestinian health official said eight Hamas fighters died in the battle near Khan Younis, where the Palestinian Red Crescent was trying to evacuate about 250 civilians. Khan Younis has been under Israeli tank shelling and drones strikes since early Wednesday.

The Red Crescent said Hamas fighters in the area were deploying rocket propelled grenades and light weapons, including machine guns, against the Israelis.

And, as the Gaza death toll mounted, a 34-year-old Palestinian man was killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers near the West Bank city of Bethlehem, a potentially ominous development in an area that has so far been relatively free of violence, despite the Gaza fighting.

Mahmoud Hamamreh was killed in stone throwing clashes in the village of Husan early Wednesday, doctors said.

In Geneva, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Israel may be committing war crimes in Gaza, where its punitive house demolitions and killing of children raise the "strong possibility" that it is violating international law.  

Pillay, opening an emergency debate at the U.N. Human Rights Council on Wednesday, also condemned the indiscriminate firing of rockets and mortars by Hamas into Israel. 

The expansion of hostilities to the West Bank came a day after Israel confirmed that one of its soldiers is missing after a deadly battle in Gaza. 

The missing Israel Defense Forces member, Sgt. Oron Shaul, disappeared during fighting over the weekend. Israeli officials said that he is presumed dead but that the military is still reviewing the case. The disappearance raised the possibility that he was detained by Hamas, which claimed earlier in the week that it had captured an Israeli soldier.

Authorities said Shaul was among seven soldiers in a vehicle that was hit by an anti-tank missile in a battle in Gaza on Sunday. The other soldiers were confirmed killed. Israel has engaged in lopsided prisoner swaps to retrieve captured soldiers or remain, such as in 2011 when Israel traded more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for the release of Gilad Shalit.

The fate of the soldier plays out against a backdrop of rising civilian casualties.

From Tuesday night into Wednesday, 46 Palestinians died in Israeli bombings of 150 targets, including five mosques, a sports complex and the home of a late Hamas military chief, a Gaza police official said.

The airstrikes set off huge explosions that turned the night sky over Gaza City orange early Tuesday. The sound of the blasts mixed with the thuds of shelling, often just seconds apart, and the predawn call to prayer from mosque loudspeakers.

Meanwhile, in central Gaza City, Al Jazeera English reported that its bureau came under fire. "Al Jazeera correspondents have collected large bullets from around the building, with other nearby buildings left untouched,” an Al Jazeera spokesman said. “No one has been injured."

The incident came a day after Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to close Al Jazeera in Israel. He said the news organization had become a propaganda outlet for Hamas. Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel's prime minister, said, "Israel does not target journalists."

Al Jazeera responded to the comments by stating that its journalists operated with the “utmost professionalism,” adding, “The foreign minister’s comments were a direct threat against us and appear to have been taken as a green light for the targeting of our journalists in Gaza.”

Tank shells damaged several houses along the eastern border of the territory, according to The Associated Press. At least 19 fishing boats were burned by Israeli navy shells fired from the Mediterranean Sea, the news agency reported.

Meanwhile, a rocket that was fired from Gaza and landed close to Ben Gurion Airpot in Tel Aviv prompted Delta Airlines and United Airlines on Tuesday to indefinitely cancel all flights into Israel. Also, US Airways, which has one daily flight from Philadelphia, canceled that flight Tuesday and the return trip from Tel Aviv. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration subsequently canceled all U.S. flights to and from the airport on Tuesday for a period of up to 24 hours, and said it would monitor the situation thereafter.

Israel's Transportation Ministry called on the companies to reverse their decision and said that the ministry was trying to explain that the airport was "safe for landings and departures."

Separately on Tuesday, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which handles humanitarian support for Palestinian refugees in Gaza, including running schools for children, said its staff had found rockets at a vacant UNRWA school. It was the second time since the newest round of fighting began that the organization had found rockets in a vacant school.

Meanwhile, international diplomatic efforts continue in a bid for a breakthrough.

In Cairo, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Egyptian officials on Tuesday in the highest-level push yet to end the deadly conflict. Ban then traveled to Israel.

In a joint news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri on Tuesday, Kerry said: "There is a framework ... to end the violence and that framework is the Egyptian initiative."

But Hamas – with some support from Qatar and Turkey – wants guarantees that the blockade of Gaza will be ended before halting fire, and believes Israel has not held up its end of the deal on past cease-fires. The group also has little faith in mediation by Egypt's rulers, who deposed a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo a year ago and tightened restrictions on Gaza.

The top Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, said Monday that Gaza's 1.7 million people share Hamas' goal of forcing Israel and Egypt to lift the blockade.

In remarks alongside Ban, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the international community to hold Hamas accountable for the latest round of violence, saying its refusal to agree to a cease-fire had prevented an earlier end to the fighting.

Kerry has said the U.S. would provide $47 million in humanitarian aid for the Gaza Strip. He plans to stay in Cairo until Wednesday morning, and has no set departure date from the region.

An Egyptian official who attended some of Kerry's meetings said Ban was working toward reaching a humanitarian truce, perhaps lasting for several days, to get aid into the territory. "The sensitivities between Egypt and Hamas are what is halting a final inclusive cease-fire deal," the official said.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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