Wednesday's death toll in Gaza climbs to 56, total death toll reaches 680

Published July 23rd, 2014 - 05:00 GMT

The continued Israeli offensive across the Gaza Strip on Wednesday afternoon left 32 Palestinians dead, bringing the total number killed since midnight to 56 as world and local leaders scrambled to arrange a ceasefire.

The high total on Wednesday afternoon came as Israeli forces continued their land invasion of the besieged coastal enclave while shelling and airstrikes bombarded the area from land and sea. The total death toll since the beginning of the operation 16 days ago has now reached 680, while at least 4,000 have been injured.

The Israeli military said on Wednesday that more than 60 access shafts leading to some 28 tunnels apparently belonging to Palestinian militants have been found, and around 4:30 p.m. said that they had struck over 70 sites across the Strip.

Israel originally claimed the operation in Gaza was meant to end rocket fire from Gaza, which had increased after an Israeli offensive in the West Bank began in June, but has since focused on attacking tunnels that it says Palestinians have used to attack Israeli soldiers.

The military also announced that two more soldiers had been killed by Palestinian militants in clashes in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, bringing the total death toll to 31, 29 of whom were soldiers. A foreign worker in southern Israel, meanwhile, was killed by a mortar on Wednesday.

On the ground, Saint Prophyrios Greek Orthodox church in Gaza City was packed to overflowing as hundreds of people, mostly women and children, sought shelter after escaping the inferno of neighboring areas like Shujaiyya, where Israeli forces have killed nearly a hundred in intense fighting in recent days.

"Many of them, their houses are destroyed. Many people have been injured or killed. So we try to help these people," said Archbishop Alexios, one of Gaza's 1,500 Palestinian Christians.

On Wednesday, Kerry flew in from Cairo for whirlwind talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah, despite a US aviation warning on flights into Israel after a rocket struck near the runway a day earlier. 

"We have certainly made some steps forward, but there is still work to be done," Kerry said in Jerusalem at the start of a meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon whom he also met in Cairo on Monday.

The UN chief warned there was no time to lose. 

"We are now joining our forces in strength to make a ceasefire as soon as possible," he said. 

Kerry then went to the West Bank city of Ramallah for talks with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, and was later to return to Tel Aviv for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He was expected to return to Cairo in the evening.

Meanwhile, top Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad said that a ceasefire was being "finalized," adding that there had been "significant progress" hopes were high that the coming hours would be critical in ending the siege on Palestinians and the Gaza Strip. 

An earlier attempt to push through an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire failed after Hamas said it had not been consulted on the ceasefire before its announcement, while Israel used the occasion to step up its attack and launch a ground invasion.

Hamas has since offered the possibility of ceasefire conditional on the end of a seven-year blockade that has crippled the Gaza Strip's economy and infrastructure.

On the eve of Kerry's visit, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas pledged Israel would be held accountable for the bloodshed in Gaza.

Abbas, who has been holding truce talks in Doha with Hamas' exiled leader Khaled Meshaal, called for "widespread popular protest" in solidarity with Gaza. 

Protests have erupted across the West Bank in recent weeks in solidarity with Gaza, with one dead early Wednesday and at least another killed earlier in the week as Israeli forces violently dispersed demonstrations.

There has been a growing wave of protest across the West Bank and in Palestinian towns in Israel, with police saying they had arrested 800 Palestinian citizens of Israelis and another 295 from East Jerusalem in the past three weeks in protests which began before the July 8 start of Israel's Gaza campaign. 

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