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Kerry pushes truce as Gaza conflict hits Israel air traffic

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

US Secretary of State John Kerry took his truce mission to Israel Wednesday as the conflict in Gaza entered its 16th day and world airlines suspended flights over rocket fears.

As air traffic thinned over Tel Aviv airport, Kerry flew in from Cairo for whirlwind talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah, despite a US aviation warning on flights into Israel after a rocket struck near the runway a day earlier.

And there was no let-up in the violence which has so far killed 649 Palestinians and 31 Israelis, with neither Israel nor Hamas showing willingness to end hostilities, despite days of diplomatic efforts to coax them into a truce.

Palestinian emergency services said that at least 18 people were killed early Wednesday, while the Israeli army announced that another two soldiers had been killed in fighting a day earlier.

- Possible war crimes -

In Geneva, UN rights chief Navi Pillay said Israel's military actions in the Gaza Strip could amount to war crimes, while also condemning indiscriminate rocket attacks by Hamas.

"There seems to be a strong possibility that international law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes," Pillay told an emergency session on Israel's Gaza offensive at the UN Human Rights Council, citing attacks that have killed Palestinian civilians, including children.

She added that Israeli children and other civilians also had a right to live without constant fear of rocket attacks.

Despite appeals from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for both sides to "stop fighting", Israel has insisted it would keep up its punishing campaign until it smashes cross-border tunnels used by Gaza militants to attack the Jewish state.

After touching down in Tel Aviv at 0800 GMT, Kerry set off for Jerusalem where he was to meet visiting Ban before travelling straight to the West Bank city of Ramallah for talks with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas, a State Department official said.

He was later to return to Tel Aviv for talks at the defence ministry with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the official said. He was expected to return to Cairo in the evening.

Kerry's arrival came a day after a Gaza rocket struck close to the airport, prompting the US Federal Aviation Authority to ban commercial flights to and from Israel for at least 24 hours.

And its European counterpart advised all carriers to avoid Tel Aviv "until further notice" in a warning issued just days after a Malaysian flight was allegedly shot down over strife-torn eastern Ukraine, raising fears for aviation safety near warzones.

Netanyahu appealed to Kerry to lift the ban, the first since the 1990-1991 Gulf war, with the US diplomat assuring him it was purely for security concerns and would be reviewed within a day.

Royal Jordanian also suspended flights to Tel Aviv on Wednesday, but US Airways said it would be resuming direct flights from Philadelphia within a day.

- Ceasefire push -

Following top-level talks in Cairo, Ban flew to Tel Aviv on Tuesday, where he issued a demand to both sides to stop the fighting and begin talking "and take on the root causes of the conflict so that we are not at the same situation in the next six months or a year".

Kerry also began his regional mission in Cairo, discussing ceasefire proposals with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, saying he backed an Egyptian truce initiative as a "framework" to end the fighting.

On the eve of Kerry's visit, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who has been holding truce talks in Doha with Hamas's exiled leader Khaled Meshaal, pledged Israel would be held accountable for the bloodshed in Gaza.

"We will pursue all those who commit crimes against our people, however long it takes," he said ahead of a leadership meeting in Ramallah on Tuesday, which concluded with a call for "widespread popular protest" in solidarity with Gaza.

Later in the evening, Israeli troops in the West Bank forces shot dead a Palestinian in clashes near the southern city of Bethlehem, sources on both sides said.

There has been a growing wave of protest across the West Bank against Israel's military operation, which expanded significantly after a major attack on Gaza's Shejaiya district that claimed around 80 lives.

Since July 2, there has been a wave of angry protest across east Jerusalem and Arab towns in Israel after Jewish extremists kidnapped and murdered a Palestinian teenager in revenge for the abduction and murder of three Jewish youngsters in June.

The demonstrations have also expressed anger over the military operation in Gaza which began on July 8, with police confirming they had arrested 800 Arab Israelis and another 295 people in east Jerusalem in the past three weeks.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/140723/kerry-pushes-truce-gaza-conflict-hits-israel-air-traffic