Middle East crisis

Ceasefire hopes slim after death toll passes 100

Hamas sticks to demand for end to Israeli blockade as UN chief arrives for talks

The death toll in Gaza soared above 100 yesterday on the sixth day of Israel's military operation, despite frantic diplomatic efforts in Cairo to end the fighting.

Inside the beleaguered Hamas-controlled enclave, Israeli aircraft and artillery pounded what the army described as "terrorist targets", but many civilians, including children, were among the victims. The Israeli army said it had attacked 1,400 targets, including individual militants, weapons storage, production facilities and smuggling tunnels.

An Israeli strike on the Al-Shorouk tower block housing several international media bureaux unleashed a furious response from journalists in Gaza and abroad. Militant group Islamic Jihad later conceded that one of its most senior figures had been killed in the attack.

Yesterday's strikes took the number of Palestinians killed since the Israeli operation began last Wednesday to 100, including 53 civilians, Gaza health officials say. Three Israelis have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza. Palestinian militants unleashed more than 100 rockets into southern Israel yesterday.

Hopes of an imminent ceasefire seemed slim yesterday as the Hamas leaders stuck to demands for a lifting of Israel's five-year blockade. UN chief Ban Ki-moon arrived in Cairo to appeal for calm as Turkish and Qatari officials joined mediation efforts to end the hostilities.

Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, dispatched to Gaza in a show of support for the Palestinians last week, was cautiously optimistic: "Negotiations are going on as we speak, and I hope we will reach something soon that will stop this violence and counter-violence," he said. "I think we are close, but the nature of this kind of negotiation [means] it is very difficult to predict."

Talks looked set to be difficult, however, with Hamas making sweeping demands that would see it emerge stronger following this latest round of violence. Hamas, bolstered by the Arab Spring movements and the rise of the Islamists in Egypt, is seeking an end to the five-year blockade of Gaza, and an end to targeted assassinations. Israel, meanwhile, is seeking assurances of a long-term ceasefire on the Palestinian side, and international guarantees that Hamas will not simply shift its base of operations to the Sinai. It has warned that it will continue the air campaign as long as the rocket fire continues, and ground troops have massed on the border.

But exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal remained defiant yesterday, insisting that while the militant group was not seeking an escalation, it would not cede ground. "We don't accept Israeli conditions because it is the aggressor," he told reporters in Egypt. "We want a ceasefire along with meeting our demands."

Israel's three top decision-makers – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – had ended a night-long meeting at 4am yesterday with a decision to give more time for Egyptian mediation before invading. A senior Israeli official told Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid the odds were "50-50" between a ceasefire and a ground operation.

Polls show a majority of Israelis back their government, but Mr Netanyahu may be running out of time. Echoing warnings from President Obama, David Cameron and other leaders, opposition leader Shaul Mofaz, a former army chief of staff, and Giora Eiland, a former general and national security adviser, said there was no need to invade Gaza and urged the government to negotiate.

"An agreement with Hamas could be reached within a few days, and it would be preferable to a ground operation," said Mr Eiland.

Turkish and Qatari officials have joined mediation efforts to end the latest round of hostilities

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