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Israel, Hamas defiant as Gaza toll tops 125

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

International alarm grew Saturday as Israel pounded Gaza for a fifth day with air strikes and artillery, killing 22 Palestinians as Hamas defiantly rained more rockets on the Jewish state.

Egypt's president warned that any escalation in the conflict would cost more "innocent lives".

But both sides have brushed off calls for a truce, and Israel continued Saturday to build up troops and armour on the Gaza border in preparation for a possible ground invasion.

The aerial campaign saw a series of strikes start early on Saturday, including one that hit a centre for the handicapped.

The attack in the northern Gaza Strip killed two handicapped women and wounded four, the centre's director said.

Other targets included a bank, the homes of Hamas leaders and a mosque that the Israeli military said was being used to store weapons.

Two nephews of former Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya were among the dead in one strike, residents said.

The deaths raised the toll in five days of violence to 127, Gaza medics said, with militants firing 564 rockets at Israel, 34 of them on Saturday, according to the army.

International efforts were under way to mediate a truce, with Sisi's spokesman saying the Egyptian president was in touch with both sides.

Sisi met Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair in Cairo on Saturday to discuss the crisis.

"The president warned of the dangers of military escalation, and the casualties it would cause among innocent civilians," Sisi's spokesman said in a statement.

- Little interest in truce -

In Washington, the White House has said it is willing to "leverage" its relationships in the region to bring about a ceasefire.

The chief diplomats of Britain, France, Germany and the United States are due to discuss how to achieve a truce when they meet in Vienna on Sunday, on the sidelines of talks on Iran's nuclear programme.

Tehran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in a taped interview with US broadcaster NBC to air later Sunday, urged Washington to use the United Nations to stop the Israeli strikes.

But there has been little sign that either side is interested in an immediate end to the hostilities.

On Friday, Cairo said its efforts to mediate a return to a 2012 ceasefire agreement "have met with stubbornness".

And speaking at a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said he would not end the military campaign until he achieved his goal of stopping the Hamas fire.

"No international pressure will prevent us from striking, with all force, against the terrorist organisation which calls for our destruction," he said.

"No terrorist target in Gaza is immune."

Haniya sounded a similarly defiant tone.

"(Israel) is the one that started this aggression and it must stop, because we are (simply) defending ourselves," he said.

His two nephews, Alaa and Nidal al-Malach, were among six people killed in an Israeli strike in Gaza City's Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood on Saturday afternoon.

The latest border flareup -- the deadliest since November 2012 -- unfolded after last month's kidnap and murder of three young Israelis in the occupied West Bank and the brutal revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists.

- Possible ground incursion -

Israel responded to the Israeli deaths with a major crackdown on Hamas, though the Islamist group declined to confirm or deny its involvement, and Gaza militants hit back with intensified rocket fire.

Israel says preparations are under way for a possible ground incursion, with tanks and artillery massed along the border and some 33,000 reservists mobilised out of 40,000 approved by the cabinet.

More armour was seen heading south on Saturday morning.

The military said an army vehicle patrolling the border was hit and damaged by fire from Gaza Saturday, although its occupants were unharmed.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said he expected a political decision on a possible ground operation by Sunday.

"At the moment we are dealing with the first phase... air attacks," he told Channel One television on Friday.

"I imagine we shall decide tomorrow (Saturday) or the day after on the next stage."

So far, no one in Israel has been killed by the rain of rockets that has forced citizens to frequently run for shelter.

Two have been seriously wounded.

In Gaza, with the toll at 127 and more than 940 people wounded, medical officials have said supplies are running low.

Egypt sent a reported 500 tonnes of food and medical supplies in a convoy through the Rafah border crossing on Saturday to help alleviate shortages.

Kuwait, meanwhile, has requested an emergency Arab foreign ministers' meeting to discuss "the deteriorating situation". It will be held on Monday.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/140712/israel-hamas-defiant-gaza-toll-tops-125