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GAZA CITY: Israeli strikes killed 24 Palestinians yesterday, taking the Gaza death toll past 100 as UN chief Ban Ki-moon joined efforts to broker a truce to end the worst violence in four years.
As the violence raged for a sixth day, an Israeli missile killed a senior Islamic Jihad militant in a Gaza City tower housing Palestinian and international media, the second time in as many days the building has been targeted.
As Ban arrived in Cairo to push for a ceasefire, Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal said his movement was committed to efforts to secure a truce with Israel, but insisted the Jewish state must lift its six-year blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Terrified and desperate, many Gaza families have fled their homes, some seeking haven in the south which has seen fewer strikes. But they know nowhere is safe.
“My son Mohammed refuses to eat. He follows me everywhere because he’s so scared and asks me every 10 minutes when we’re going to die,” said Umm Jihad, 37.
“He says he won’t go back to school because he’s scared he’ll be martyred or that he’ll come back from school and find that I or his brothers have been killed,” she said.
Mourners flocked to the funeral of nine members of one family killed in a weekend strike on a Gaza City home, the tiny bodies of the five children carried through the streets wrapped in Palestinian flags.
“Do children fire rockets?” shouted a man through a loudhailer as the crowd roared back: “No!”
The violence, which comes as Israel gears up for a general election on January 22, raised the spectre of a broader Israeli military campaign like its 22-day Operation Cast Lead, launched at the end of December 2008.
Analysts say Israel’s leadership appears satisfied with the success of Operation Pillar of Defence and that could it be ready for a ceasefire.
But the Jewish state has signalled a readiness to expand the operation.
And Gaza’s Hamas rulers have been emboldened after securing the support of the recently installed Islamist governments of Egypt and Tunisia.
The overall death toll from the Israeli raids on the Palestinian territory hit 101, with another 24 people killed yesterday.
The Israeli army said that 42 rockets had struck yesterday and another 19 been intercepted by the Iron Dome defence system.
To date, the military has struck more than 1,350 targets in Gaza, and 640 rockets have crashed into southern Israel while another 324 have been intercepted.
Israel yesterday said that while it was prepared to step up its offensive by sending in troops, it preferred a diplomatic solution that would end Palestinian rocket fire from the enclave.
The latest negotiations aimed at ending the conflict, conducted behind closed doors in Cairo, ended without agreement. But all sides have expressed a willingness to engage in more talks.
The UN chief flew to Egypt “to add his diplomatic weight to these efforts, which are considerable and extremely important,” his spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
Ban was to meet Egypt’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr on Monday night, and President Mohamed Morsi and Arab League chief Nabil Al Arabi today, Nesirky said.
He would then go to Jerusalem to see Israeli leaders but had no plan to go to Gaza, Nesirky added.
The Arab League’s Arabi is due in Gaza on Tuesday, accompanied by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, in the latest in a series of visits that have eased the long diplomatic isolation of the territory’s Hamas rulers.
Israel was also seeking a ceasefire, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself having “called the US, Europe and Egypt asking for a truce,” said Meshaal.
“We are not against a calming, but we want our demands... to end the thuggery, to end the aggression and to lift the blockade,” he said.
An Egyptian official who spoke to AFP before Meshaal’s statement reported “encouraging signs.”
“I hope, that maybe by the end of the day, we receive a final signal of what may be achieved to stop hostilities,” he said.
“Both sides are saying a ceasefire is important and that there should be guarantees, but these guarantees are different.”
Hamas is also understood to be seeking guarantees Israel will stop its targeted killings, like the one which killed a top military commander on Wednesday, sparking the current hostilities.
Israel has its own demands, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman insisting “the first and absolute condition for a truce is stopping all fire from Gaza.”