Gaza death toll tops 700 as US lifts ban on Israel flights

Truce by weekend ‘unlikely’ Israeli minister says as hunt for tunnels to take four days

Thu, Jul 24, 2014, 12:44

Israel won a partial reprieve from the economic pain of its Gaza war today with the lifting of a US ban on commercial flights to Tel Aviv, as fighting pushed the Palestinian death toll over 700.

A truce remained elusive despite intensive mediation bids. Palestinians said residents of two southern villages were trapped by tank shelling, preventing evacuation of casualties.

Israel says it needs more time to eradicate cross-border tunnels used by Hamas for attacks, while the Palestinian Islamists demand the blockade on the Gaza Strip be lifted.

With Washington’s encouragement, Egypt has been trying to mediate a limited humanitarian ceasefire. One Cairo official said yesterday that could go into effect by the weekend, in time for the Eid al-Fitr festival, Islam’s biggest annual celebration, which follows the fasting month of Ramadan.

But a senior US official described any truce by the weekend as unlikely, as did an Israeli cabinet minister who said the hunt for tunnels would take at least four days to complete.

“I do not see a ceasefire in the coming days where the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) leave,” science minister Yaakov Peri, a former security chief who advises Israel’s top strategic decision-makers, told the Walla news site. “Even if there is a humanitarian truce, we would continue tackling the tunnels.”

The death toll in Gaza reached 718 today as Israeli tank fire and other pre-dawn assaults killed 26 people in the Hamas-dominated coastal enclave, including six members of the same family, Palestinian health officials said.

In southern Khuzaa and Abassan villages, they said, Israeli shelling left dead and wounded under rubble, while medical crews could not risk attending.

Israel has lost 32 soldiers to clashes inside Gaza and with Hamas raiders who have slipped across the fortified frontier in tunnels. Rocket and mortar shelling by Hamas and other Palestinian guerrillas has killed three civilians in Israel.

Such shelling surged last month as Israel cracked down on Hamas in the occupied West Bank, triggering the July 8th air and sea barrage in Gaza that escalated into an invasion a week ago.

Flights Resuming

Though Israel’s Iron Dome rocket interceptor has shot down most of the rockets fired from Gaza, one that came close to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport on Tuesday prompted the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to bar American flights there.

The ensuing wave of cancellations by foreign airlines emptied Israel’s usually bustling international gateway and hurt its hi-tech economy at the height of summer tourist season. It was hailed as a victory by Hamas, and prompted an appeal by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the Obama administration to intervene.

The FAA said that after reviewing the security situation it had cancelled the ban late yesterday. US Airways, a unit of American Airlines Group Inc, said on Thursday it was resuming its non-stop Tel Aviv to Philadelphia service.

Israel predicted other US airlines would follow suit within hours, though European carriers could take longer. Germany’s Lufthansa and Air Berlin said their suspension of flights to Tel Aviv would continue to Friday.

“The Europeans did not really deliberate over this, but acted more as a follow-up to the American decision,” said Gadi Regev, chief of staff for Israel’s Civil Aviation Authority.

A number of European flights have been diverted to Cyprus’s Larnaca airport for onward travel to Ben Gurion on Israeli carriers.