GAZA/JERUSALEM - Israeli forces pounded Gaza on Wednesday, meeting stiff resistance from Hamas Islamists and sending thousands of residents fleeing, as US Secretary of State John Kerry said on a visit to Israel ceasefire talks had made some progress.
In a blow to Israel's economy and a public relations coup for Hamas, US and European air carriers halted flights to the Jewish state citing concern over a militant rocket from Gaza that hit a house near Ben Gurion airport. Israel urged a re-think, saying its air space was safe.
Adding to pressure on Israel, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said on Wednesday there was "a strong possibility" that it was committing war crimes in Gaza, where 645 Palestinians have died in the fighting, mostly civilians.
Israel denied the suggestion, stepping up the war of words and accusing Hamas of using fellow Gazans as human shields.
Making an unannounced, one-day visit, Kerry was due to see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, signaling an intensification of efforts to end the bloodshed.
"We have certainly made some steps forward. There is still work to be done," Kerry said shortly after arriving.
Israel launched its offensive on July 8 to halt missile salvoes by Hamas and its allies, struggling under the weight of an Israeli-Egyptian economic blockade and angered by a crackdown on their supporters in the nearby occupied West Bank.
After failing to halt the militant barrage through days of aerial bombardment, Israel sent ground troops into the Gaza Strip last Thursday, looking to knock out Hamas's missile stores and destroy a vast, underground network of tunnels.
"We are meeting resistance around the tunnels ... they are constantly trying to attack us around and in the tunnels. That is the trend," Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said on Wednesday. Some 29 Israeli soldiers have been killed so far in the conflagration, including a tank officer shot by a Palestinian sniper overnight. Three civilians have died in rocket attacks out of Gaza, including a foreign laborers hit on Wednesday.
The military says one of its soldiers is also missing and believes he might be dead. Hamas says it has captured him, but has not released a picture of him in their hands.
Already hurt by mass tourist cancellations, Israel faced increased economic pressure after the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) took the rare step on Tuesday of banning flights to Tel Aviv for at least 24 hours. Many other international airlines, on heightened alert after a Malaysian airliner was shot down over an area of fighting in Ukraine last week, followed suit, while Israel's own carriers continued to operate.
The FAA action represented a public relations coup for Hamas, which is anxious to dent Israel's global image. However, the Tel Aviv stock exchange and Shekel were flat, with traders showing little immediate concern about the flight stoppages.
An Israeli official said Netanyahu had asked Kerry to help restore the US flights. A US official said the Obama administration would not "overrule the FAA" on a security precaution but noted the ban would be reviewed after 24 hours.
Clouds of black smoke hung over Gaza, some 65-km (40 miles) south of Ben Gurion, with the regular thud of artillery and tank shells filling the air.
Palestinian medics said two worshippers were killed and 30 wounded in an attack on a mosque in the heart of the densely populated Zeitoun neighborhood in eastern Gaza City.
In a move that could effectively turn Abbas into the main Palestinian point person for any Gaza truce, his umbrella Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) on Wednesday formally supported core conditions set by the Hamas-led fighters.
These demands include the release of hundreds of Hamas supporters recently arrested in the nearby West Bank and an end to the Egyptian-Israeli blockade of Gaza, which has stymied the economy and made it near impossible for anyone to travel abroad.
Egypt has tried to get both sides to hold fire and then negotiate terms for protracted calm in Gaza, which has been rocked by regular bouts of violence since Israel unilaterally pulled out of the territory in 2005.
Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel's right to exist, baulked at Cairo's original, barebones offer. The dispute was further complicated by distrust between Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Hamas.
Egyptian sources said a unified Palestinian position could help achieve a deal. Unlike Hamas, Abbas and his Western-backed PLO have pursued peacemaking with Israel for two decades.