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Kerry Pushing for Israeli-Hamas Truce  07/23 06:25

   Israeli troops battled Hamas militants on Wednesday near a southern Gaza 
Strip town as the U.S. secretary of state flew into Israel to press top-gear 
efforts for a truce in the conflict that has so far killed at least 657 
Palestinians and 31 Israelis.

   GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Israeli troops battled Hamas militants on 
Wednesday near a southern Gaza Strip town as the U.S. secretary of state flew 
into Israel to press top-gear efforts for a truce in the conflict that has so 
far killed at least 657 Palestinians and 31 Israelis.

   Trapped by the fighting in Khan Younis, a town on the southern edge of the 
Gaza Strip, dozens of Palestinian families scrambled to flee the area.

   John Kerry landed in Tel Aviv despite a Federal Aviation Administration ban 
following a Hamas rocket near the airport the day before, reflecting his 
determination to achieve a cease-fire agreement between the warring sides.

   Kerry was to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and United Nations Secretary-General Ban 
Ki-moon in Jerusalem and Ramallah in what appeared to be a crucial day in the 
flailing talks. U.S. officials have downplayed expectations for an immediate, 
lasting truce between Israel and the Hamas militant group that controls Gaza.

   In Jerusalem, Kerry said negotiations toward a Gaza cease-fire agreement 
were making some progress after days of a deadly impasse between Israel and 
Hamas militants. He was not specific in describing what he called steps forward 
in the negotiations as he met for a second time this week with United Nations 
chief Ban Ki-moon.

   Meanwhile, a foreign worker in Israel was killed when a rocket fired from 
the Gaza Strip landed in southern Israel 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 29, 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 

   Hundreds of residents of eastern Khan Younis were seen fleeing their homes 
as the battle unfolded, flooding into the streets with what few belongings they 
could carry, many with children in tow. They said they were seeking 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 centered on 
an agricultural area, which Israel has claimed is a site for Hamas tunnels 
going under the border into Israel.

   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 657, 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 tunnels leading from Gaza to Israel that are intended 
to allow Hamas militants to carry out attacks against Israelis.

   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, a 
potentially ominous development in an area that has so far been relatively free 
of violence, despite the Gaza fighting.

   Mahmoud Hamamreh was killed in stone throwing clashes in the village of 
Husan early Wednesday, doctors said.

   On Tuesday, U.S. and European airlines quickly canceled flights to Israel 
after a Hamas rocket hit near the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, 
dealing a blow to Israel's lucrative tourist industry.

   The conflict is also starting to strain the Israeli economy. Military and 
finance ministry officials have said that the first 10 days of the operation 
had direct costs of about 2 billion shekels --- about $585 million.


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