GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli troops battled Hamas militants on Wednesday near a southern Gaza Strip town as dozens of Palestinian families trapped by the fighting scrambled to flee the area. The U.S. secretary of state meanwhile presses ahead with top-gear efforts to end the conflict that has killed at least 650 Palestinians and 31 Israelis.
John Kerry, who is on a Mideast trip to push for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, landed in Tel Aviv despite a Federal Aviation Administration ban following a Hamas rocket near the airport the day before.
Kerry was to meet Wednesday with Israel’s prime minster, the Palestinian Authority’s president and the United Nations chief in a daylong visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah.
Israel reported that two more of its soldiers have died in the conflict, bringing the military’s death toll to 29, but did not elaborate on the circumstances of the latest casualties. Two Israeli civilians have also died in the 15-day fighting.
A Palestinian health official said eight Hamas fighters died in the ferocious battle near Khan Younis, from where the Palestinian Red Crescent was trying to evacuate about 250. Khan Younis was under Israeli tank shelling and drones strikes since early Wednesday.
The Red Crescent said Hamas fighters in the area were deploying rocket propelled grenades and light weapons, including machine guns, against the Israelis.
The Palestinians say Israel is randomly deploying a wide array of modern weaponry against Gaza’s 1.7 million people, inflicting a heavy civilian death toll and destroying large amounts of property there. By Wednesday morning, the Palestinian death toll stood at 650, according to Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra, most of them civilians.
Israel says it began the Gaza operation to halt Hamas rocket fire on its territory and to destroy a network of tunnels leading from Gaza to Israel that are intended to allow Hamas militants to carry out attacks against Israelis.
As the Gaza death toll mounted, a 34-year-old Palestinian man was killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers near the West Bank City of Bethlehem, a potentially ominous development in an area that has so far been relatively free of violence, despite the Gaza fighting.
Mahmoud Hamamreh was killed in stone throwing clashes in the village of Husan early Wednesday, doctors said.
On Tuesday, U.S. and European airlines quickly canceled flights to Israel after a Hamas rocket hit near the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, dealing a blow to Israel’s lucrative tourist industry.
The conflict is also starting to strain the Israeli economy. Military and finance ministry officials have said that the first 10 days of the operation had direct costs of about 2 billion shekels — about $585 million.