GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli tanks and artillery pounded the city of Gaza on Thursday in the most relentless shelling in nearly three weeks of fighting, despite some signs of progress in international efforts to bring about a ceasefire.
Live video footage from a Reuters camera in central Gaza showed sustained artillery fire from the edge of the city for several hours. Shells exploded in downtown areas and long machinegun bursts echoed off Gaza’s cramped housing blocks.
Much of the fighting was centered in the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood, where some residents fled on foot while others remained in the precarious shelter of their homes as a night-time attack stretched into the morning.
There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Israeli forces have encircled the city of 500,000 people for days. Tanks have made forays toward the center to test the resistance of Hamas and other militant groups but have held off a full-scale assault on the densely populated urban maze.
The Palestinian death toll from the air-and-ground offensive has risen to at least 1,024, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza. A Palestinian rights group said 670 of the dead were civilians. Thirteen Israelis have been killed — 10 soldiers and three civilians hit by Hamas rocket fire.
As the toll mounts, ceasefire negotiations to end the Israeli offensive that began on December 27 and Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel have intensified.
An Israeli envoy was to meet Egyptian mediators in Cairo on Thursday after a Hamas delegation concluded talks on an Egyptian truce proposal by repeating their demand that Israel withdraw its troops and lift a long-standing blockade on coastal Gaza.
Israel, which wants an end to rocket attacks on its towns and guarantees that Hamas cannot smuggle in more weapons from tunnels to neighboring Egypt, said it would not agree to a truce allowing the Palestinian Islamists to regroup and rearm.
In the occupied West Bank on Wednesday, Spain’s Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, a former EU Middle East envoy, said: “My perception is we are very close to reaching a ceasefire. They are very close but still there is some work to be done.”
Israeli officials said Israel was seeking an agreement with Washington on regional and international security guarantees that would bolster Egyptian efforts to ensure Hamas could not replenish its arsenal.
The United States and European powers, the officials said, would commit themselves to providing Egypt with both advisers and new technology to combat smuggling tunnels.
Israel was also seeking an international maritime monitoring effort to prevent rocket smuggling by sea through Egyptian ports to block the shipments before they even reach the border, the officials said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon — who arrived in the region on Wednesday for several days of intense diplomacy on the conflict — planned to meet Israeli leaders later on Thursday.
Political analysts see a possible deadline in Tuesday’s inauguration of Barack Obama as U.S. president, after which Israel may be reluctant to test White House support for a campaign that has stirred international outrage.
In fighting overnight, two militants were killed in the southern Gaza Strip, Palestinian medical workers said. The Israeli military said 11 of its soldiers were wounded.
About 14 rockets fired from the Gaza Strip hit southern Israel on Thursday, causing some damage but no casualties, police said.
The Israeli military said its aircraft attacked about 70 “terrorist sites”, including a mosque in the southern town of Rafah which it alleged was used by militants to stockpile rockets and five homes of Hamas operatives containing weapons caches.
With Israeli troops edging closer to the heart of the city of Gaza, international organizations have expressed growing concern about the plight of civilians trapped there.
Human rights groups have reported shortages of vital supplies, including water, in the Hamas-ruled territory. A fuel shortage has brought frequent power blackouts.
Israel has permitted almost daily truck shipments of food and medicine. But Human Rights Watch said Israel’s daily three-hour break in attacks to facilitate the supply of humanitarian aid to Gazans was “woefully insufficient”.