WATCH ABOVE: Flight restrictions still in effect as John Kerry talks cease-fire in Tel Aviv.
GAZA, Gaza Strip – Israeli troops battled Hamas militants on Wednesday near a southern Gaza Strip town as the U.S. secretary of state reported progress in efforts to broker a truce in the conflict that has so far killed more than 700 Palestinians and 34 Israelis.
But neither side appeared close to backing down, after Palestinian rocket fire led several international airlines to cancel flights to Tel Aviv and Israeli troops clashed with Hamas near the Gaza town of Khan Younis in heavy fighting that forced dozens of families to flee.
Speaking from exile in Qatar, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal called for the opening of Gaza’s borders and an end to the blockade against it, calling Palestinians “the true owners of the land.”
He said Hamas cannot abandon its terms in a cease-fire agreement, and can accept a humanitarian truce that is supported by a genuine relief program for the besieged Gaza Strip.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said around three-quarters of those killed in the Gaza Strip were civilians and thousands more have been injured, violations which might amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
A special session of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council voted 29-1 to authorize an international commission of inquiry to investigate the alleged abuses. Only the United States voted against the resolution; another 17 of the council’s 47 member-nations abstained.
Pillay noted an Israeli drone strike that killed three children and wounded two others while they were playing on the roof of their home. She also referenced Israeli fire that struck seven children playing on Gaza beach, killing four from the same family.
“There seems to be a strong possibility that international humanitarian law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes,” Pillay told the 47-nation UN Human Rights Council, adding such incidents should be investigated.
John Kerry flew into Tel Aviv despite a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ban following a Hamas rocket that hit near the airport the day before, reflecting his determination to achieve a cease-fire agreement between the warring sides.
Air Canada cancelled their Wednesday evening Flight AC84 as well as the return flight AC85 for Thursday. The airline said it would “evaluate” the situation going forward, after also having cancelled its daily flight Tuesday.
U.S. airlines have suspended flights until the FAA lifts its ban, though American Airlines plans to resume service Thursday “if the FAA approves.”
The FAA extended its ban on U.S. airlines’ flights to and from Tel Aviv for up-to-an-additional 24 hours, which would be 12:15 p.m. ET Thursday.
“The agency is working closely with the Government of Israel to review the significant new information they have provided and determine whether potential risks to U.S. civil aviation are mitigated so the agency can resolve concerns as quickly as possible,” said the FAA statement.
Air France and Germany’s two largest airlines cancelled more flights Wednesday “until further notice.”
Israeli officials have slammed the cancellations as an overreaction that rewards Hamas, and Israel’s own El Al airline is still flying in and out of Ben-Gurion. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the flight cancellations were a “great victory” for the group.
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who met for the second time this week with United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon, flew to Israel on an Air Force jet, despite a ban imposed a day earlier by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on commercial flights into Ben-Gurion Airport because of Hamas rocket fire nearby. The FAA extended the ban Wednesday and many major European carriers also cancelled more flights due to security concerns.
“We certainly have made steps forward,” Kerry said, adding, “There’s still work to be done.”
Abbas said late Tuesday he had discussed with faction leaders, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and Islamic Jihad among them, conditions for reaching a cease-fire, including “opening border crossings and ending all forms of aggressions.” Prisoner releases, humanitarian aid to Gaza and holding a donors conference for the reconstruction of Gaza were among the topics discussed, Abbas said.
Israel has insisted it must substantially curb the military capabilities of the Islamic militant group Hamas — a position that appears to have gained support within the U.S. administration — while Hamas has demanded the lifting of a crippling Israeli and Egyptian blockade on the impoverished coastal territory it has ruled since 2007.
The U.S., Israel and the European Union all consider Hamas a terrorist organization. But the UN does not, and Ban Ki-moon said he and Kerry were jointly lobbying officials in the region to push Hamas and Israel to a cease-fire as soon as possible.
“We don’t have much time to wait and lose,” Ban told reporters before the meeting with Kerry.
VIDEO GALLERY: ISRAEL-GAZA CONFLICT
Meanwhile, a foreign worker in Israel was killed when a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed near the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on Wednesday, police spokeswoman Luba Samri said. She did not immediately know the worker’s nationality.
Israel also reported that two more of its soldiers have died in the conflict, bringing the military’s death toll to 32, 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 ferocious battle near Khan Younis, from where the Palestinian Red Crescent was trying to evacuate about 250. Khan Younis has been under Israeli tank shelling and drone 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, causing hundreds of Khan Younis residents to flee and seek shelter in nearby UN schools.
“The airplanes and airstrikes are all around us,” said Aziza Msabah, a resident of Khan Younis. "They are hitting the houses, which are collapsing upon us."
The Israeli military did not respond to Associated Press inquiries as to why such heavy fighting was concentrated in Khan Younis, saying only it was conducting operations throughout the Gaza Strip. The fighting was centred on an agricultural area, which Israel has claimed is a site for Hamas tunnels going under the border into Israel.
Further north, in the Shijaiyah neighbourhood of Gaza City, which saw intense fighting earlier this week, an airstrike demolished a home, killing 30-year-old journalist Abdul Rahman Abu Hean, his grandfather Hassan and his nephew Osama.
Watch raw video below: Red Cross team comes under fire in Gaza
Israel also struck the Wafa hospital in Gaza City, which the military says houses a Hamas command centre. Basman Ashi, the medical centre’s director, said all 97 patients and staff were evacuated following Israeli warnings and that no one was hurt in the attack.
The Palestinians say Israel is randomly deploying a wide array of modern weaponry against Gaza’s 1.7 million people, inflicting a heavy civilian death toll and destroying large amounts of property there. By mid-day Wednesday, the Palestinian death toll stood at 684, according to Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra, most of them civilians.
Israel says it began the Gaza operation to halt Hamas rocket fire into Israel – more than 2,100 have been fired since the conflict erupted – and to destroy a network of cross-border tunnels, some of which have been used to stage attacks inside Israel.
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, doctors said, a potentially ominous development in an area that has so far been relatively free of violence.
Mahmoud Hamamreh was killed in stone throwing clashes in the village of Husan early Wednesday, doctors said.
The Associated Press reporter Peter Enav reported from Jerusalem
© 2014 The Canadian Press