Middle East

Hamas says Gaza blockade must end before ceasefire

The leader of Islamist militant group Hamas has said there can be no ceasefire to ease the conflict in Gaza without an end to Israel's blockade.

Khaled Meshaal said Hamas would continue to reject a lasting ceasefire until its conditions were met.

It follows further Israeli air strikes and ground operations in Gaza, as Hamas continues to fire rockets into Israel.

Israel launched its military offensive on 8 July with the declared objective of stopping rocket fire from Gaza.

At least 710 Palestinians and 32 Israeli soldiers, as well as three civilians in Israel, have been killed in the past 16 days of fighting, officials say.

'Running out of food'

UN humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, said that civilians in Gaza were in a "terrible, terrible situation".

"We have over 119,000 people now who are sheltering in UN schools. People are running out of food. Water is also a serious concern," she said.

There have been hundreds of rocket attacks on Israel, and Israeli air strikes on Gaza, since the Israeli offensive began.

The US Federal Aviation Authority has now lifted a ban on US airlines flying into Tel Aviv which came into force on Tuesday.

However, several European airlines have continued to cancel flights to Tel Aviv after a rocket landed about a mile (1.6km) away from Ben Gurion airport on Tuesday.

Image caption Israel says its latest ground offensive in Gaza is aimed at destroying Hamas' network of tunnels
Image caption Khaled Meshaal said Hamas would not agree to a ceasefire until the terms had been negotiated

In addition to lifting the eight-year economic blockade, Mr Meshaal's list of demands also included the opening of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt and the release of Palestinian prisoners.

"We will not accept any initiative that does not lift the blockade on our people and that does not respect their sacrifices," Khaled Meshaal told reporters at a news conference in Qatar on Wednesday.

But, he added, the group would not "close the door" to a humanitarian truce, saying: "We need the calm for a few hours to evacuate the wounded and assist in [aid] relief."

Mr Meshaal appealed to the international community to help bring medicine, fuel and other supplies into Gaza.

Meanwhile, Israel's Science Minister Yaakov Peri told Israeli web portal Walla: "I do not see a ceasefire in the coming days where the IDF [Israel Defence Forces] leave.

"I can say authoritatively that two or three days will not be enough to finish tackling the tunnels."

Israel imposed restrictions on the Gaza Strip in 2006 after Hamas abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The measures were tightened by Israel and Egypt in 2007 after Hamas ousted rival Fatah and forcibly took control in Gaza after winning elections the year before.

Hamas and Fatah announced a reconciliation deal in April, but the move was condemned by Israel which regards Hamas as a terrorist group.

Khaled Meshaal's comments came amid fierce fighting in Gaza on Wednesday, with eyewitness reports of around 5,000 Palestinians fleeing the village of Khuzaa, in the south, following a ground incursion by Israeli troops.

'Endangering children'

Palestinian medical sources say the death toll rose to more than 710 on Thursday. The total includes a Palestinian man shot dead by Israeli forces in pre-dawn clashes in the West Bank on Wednesday.

Israel said three of its soldiers were killed on Wednesday during efforts to destroy the network of Palestinian militant tunnels.

Image caption The UN says hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have fled their homes and are staying in UN shelters
Image caption Three civilians in Israel and 32 Israeli soldiers have been killed over the last 15 days

A Thai farm worker was killed when a rocket fired from Gaza landed near the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on Wednesday.

Palestinian officials say eight militants were killed in clashes with Israeli troops on the outskirts of Khan Younis.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed "outrage and regret" at rockets which were placed inside a UN-run school in Gaza.

"Those responsible are turning schools into potential military targets, and endangering the lives of innocent children," Mr Ban's spokesperson said in a statement on Wednesday.

Separately, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva voted in favour of an official investigation into alleged war crimes in Gaza.

Image caption Israel launched a ground offensive in Gaza last week
Image caption UN human rights boss Navi Pillay says Israel's military actions in Gaza "could amount to war crimes"

The move was condemned by the Israeli prime minister's media office, which described it as "a travesty".

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni earlier said her country was acting according to international law.

UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the UN Human Rights Council resolution was "fundamentally unbalanced" and would not help achieve a lasting ceasefire.

Meanwhile US Secretary of State John Kerry has been meeting both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to try to help negotiate a truce.

Speaking on Wednesday after meeting Ban Ki-moon, Mr Kerry said: "We have certainly made some steps forward, but there is still work to be done."