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Middle East

Israel-Gaza conflict: Israeli bombardment continues as Ban Ki-moon tells Benjamin Netanyahu 'stop fighting, start talking'

More than 600 Palestinians have now been killed as the Israeli offensive entered its third week

Israel continued to bombard Gaza with air strikes today even as the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appeared in a joint press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu to call for an immediate ceasefire.

Mr Ban said that he addressed Israel "with a heavy heart", because "too many Palestinian and Israeli mothers are burying their children".

But in response to his demand for both sides to "stop fighting, start talking", the Israeli Prime Minister said his country would continue to defend itself "as is its right".

Mr Netanyahu told Mr Ban that Hamas had "no grievance, except the fact that we exist", and compared the militant group to Isis in Syria and Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Boko Haram in western Africa.

The rhetoric from each side appeared to bring the conflict no closer to a halt, and came after Israel's most pacifist cabinet minister, the justice secretary Tzipi Livni, admitted: "I see no light at the end of the tunnel."

From Egypt, the US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Hamas to come to the negotiating table in Cairo and accept the offer of a truce proposal.

"Hamas has a fundamental choice to make and it is a choice that will have a profound impact for the people of Gaza," Mr Kerry said at a news conference with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shukri.

As the conflict entered its third week today, the Israeli military bombed at least another 70 targets across the Gaza Strip, bringing the Palestinian death toll to 609, the health ministry reported.

The UN office of humanitarian affairs estimates that at least three quarters of those killed were civilians, including up to 100 children.

Israeli soldiers rest next to artillery shells from an artillery unit near the Israeli border with Gaza

On the Israeli side, the death of a soldier in fighting in southern Gaza on Tuesday brought the number of military casualties to 27. Two Israeli civilians have also been killed.

The violence also unusually spilled over into the nearby occupied West Bank, where doctors said a Palestinian man was shot dead by police during a protest involving stone-throwing. An Israeli was also shot and seriously wounded by a Palestinian.

The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) confirmed today that a soldier had also gone "missing" during fighting in Gaza, after Hamas claimed they had "kidnapped" Sergeant Oron Shaul.

Video: Gaza resident - 'Now we can't even pray'

Army officials said that while they suspect Sgt Shaul was killed by a direct hit on a vehicle he and six others were travelling in on 20 July, they are yet to recover his body.

With the fatalities this week, the Israeli military has now lost more soldiers than in any campaign since the 2006 war with Lebanon.

Among the facilities hit overnight were three homes, including one where three women from the same family perished, according to Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra.

Another home destroyed in an air strike was reported to have housed a German-Palestinian family, all seven of home were killed.

A German foreign ministry spokesperson said that "based on multiple concurring indications, we understand that the family lost their lives".

gaza-21.jpg The overnight bombardment also included the destruction of five mosques and a sports complex in Gaza, though these attacks were not believed to have caused any casualties.

As the violence continues to escalate, prospects for a truce remain elusive. Mr Ban appeared to join the US and Egypt in calling for an unconditional ceasefire, to be followed by talks on a possible new border arrangement for Gaza.

But Hamas, with some support from Qatar and Turkey, wants guarantees on lifting the blockade on its borders before halting fire. The Islamic militant group has no faith in mediation by Egypt's rulers, who deposed a Hamas-friendly government in Cairo a year ago and tightened restrictions on Gaza — to the point of driving Hamas into its worst financial crisis since its founding in 1987.

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

"We cannot go back to the silent death [of the blockade]", he said. "Gaza has decided to end the blockade by its blood and by its courage."