Israel-Gaza conflict: John Kerry flies to Middle East to urge ceasefire as crisis deepens

UN chief Ban Ki-moon called the Shijaiyah shelling 'an atrocious action'

The US Secretary of State John Kerry has flown out to the Middle East after Sunday saw the deaths of two Americans among the 13 Israeli soldiers and more than 100 Palestinians killed in the deadliest day of the conflict so far.

Last night the UN Security Council held an emergency closed-door meeting to discuss the worsening crisis, where members expressed alarm at the rapid escalation of violence and rising death toll in Gaza.

This morning Palestinian health officials said its recorded number of dead had passed 500 for the first time, after 20 more bodies were pulled from the rubble of a single flattened home in the city of Khan Younis.

In total there have been 20 Israeli deaths, including two civilians killed by cross-border shelling.

On Sunday night, the US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki confirmed the identities of two Americans killed while fighting for the Israeli Defence Forces.

Max Steinberg, 24, was described by his family in California as a sharpshooter for the Golani Brigade of the Israeli infantry. Nissim Carmeli, 21, was a sergeant from Texas who moved to Israel four years ago.

Ms Psaki said that both President Barack Obama and Mr Kerry joined the UN in calling for an immediate ceasefire.

Video: 'If you stay at home, you'll die...'

She said the US and its international partners were “deeply concerned about the risk of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life”.

Mr Obama spoke to the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in a phone call on Sunday to discuss plans for Mr Kerry’s arrival in Cairo, the White House said. It added that the US condemned Hamas’s continued firing of rockets into Israel.

gaza-funeral-getty.jpgBut while discussions for a ceasefire in Egypt have been firmly backed by the US and Israel, Palestinians have turned to Qatar and Turkey to put forward an alternative proposal. There is distrust in Gaza of the leadership in Cairo after it ousted the pro-Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood-led government last year.

The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had already been due to travel the region this week to try to revive ceasefire efforts, and described yesterday’s shelling of the Shijaiyah district in Gaza City as “an atrocious action”.

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An Israeli rocket is fired into northern Gaza strip (REUTERS)

The UN relief agency in Gaza estimates that 70,000 Palestinians have fled their homes in the fighting and are seeking shelter in schools and other shelters set up by the UN.

The Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called it a “massacre” and said the Israeli offensive involving tanks, infantry units, missiles from the air and sea and the reported use of flechette shells as a “crime against humanity”.

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Banjamin Netanyahu has said Hamas doesn't "give a whit about the Palestinians" (AP)

The Israeli military said it targeted Shijaiyah to combat what it described as a Hamas stronghold, and to destroy a network of tunnels leading to Israel that have become “like the Underground”.

Speaking in a broadcast on Israeli national TV on Sunday, Mr Netanyahu said the goal was to “restore a sustainable quiet” and ultimately “demilitarise Gaza”.

He said the offensive would continue “as long as necessary” to end rocket attacks from Gaza.

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