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Pressure builds for ceasefire before Israeli ground assault


Gaza suffered its bloodiest day yesterday since Israel launched a military offensive in the Palestinian territory, with a sharp escalation in the ferocity of attacks from both sides amid frenzied diplomacy to try to forestall an Israeli ground assault.

Even as an Israeli envoy was reported to be travelling to Cairo for ceasefire talks with Egyptian mediators, the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, left, vowed a "significant expansion" of Israel's military onslaught.

Nabeel Sha'ath, a senior Fatah official, was dispatched to Gaza by the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, to intercede with the leaders of the rival Hamas group.

At least 24 Palestinians were killed by Israeli air and artillery attacks yesterday, raising the Palestinian death toll to 70 – more than half of whom were civilians – and marking the day as the bloodiest since Operation Pillar of Defence began last Wednesday with the assassination of the Hamas military chief, Ahmed al-Jabari. Three Israelis have also been killed since the conflict began. Israel said the commander of the Hamas rocket unit was among yesterday's targets.

Eleven of the Palestinian victims were killed in a single strike on a home in the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood of Gaza City which was apparently targeting a senior Hamas militant. The Palestinian Ma'an News Agency said four women and four children from one family were among the dead.

At least four Israelis were injured as Palestinian groups unleashed repeated barrages of rockets at Beersheba, Sderot, Ashkelon and Ashdod throughout the day.

Addressing his Cabinet in Jerusalem, Mr Netanyahu said the Israeli army was "prepared for a significant expansion of its operations".

With rumours of an imminent ground offensive, other countries in the region moved to find a negotiated settlement. In Cairo, President Mohamed Morsi was reported to be putting intense pressure on the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, to agree to a ceasefire.

In London, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, warned Israel that past experience proved it risked losing the support even of its closest allies if it embarked on a ground invasion. His comments were echoed by US President Obama, who told reporters that it would be "preferable" if Israel exercised its right to self-defence "without a ramping-up of military activity in Gaza".