Israel bombed dozens more targets in the Gaza Strip on Monday and said that, while it was prepared to step up its offensive by sending in troops, it preferred a diplomatic solution that would end Palestinian rocket fire.
Egypt said a deal for a truce could be close, though by late evening there was no end to six days of heavy missile exchanges as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed his next steps with his inner circle of senior ministers.
U.S. President Barack Obama called Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi, who has been trying to use his influence with Hamas, his fellow Islamists who run Gaza, to broker a halt. Obama “underscored the necessity of Hamas ending rocket fire”, the White House said.
The leader of Hamas, speaking in Cairo, said it was up to Israel to end a new conflict that he said it had started. Israel, which assassinated a Hamas military chief on Wednesday, says its air strikes are to halt Palestinian rocket attacks.
To Mursi and in a subsequent call to Netanyahu, Obama said he regretted the deaths of Israeli and Palestinian civilians.
Israeli attacks on the sixth day of fighting raised the number of Palestinian dead to 101, the Hamas-run Health Ministry said, listing 24 children among them. Subsequent deaths raised the toll in Gaza to 106. Hospital officials in the enclave said more than half of those killed were non-combatants. Three Israeli civilians died on Thursday in a rocket strike.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, touring the region in the hopes of helping to broker a peace deal, arrived in Cairo, where he met Egypt’s foreign minister in preparation for talks with Mursi on Tuesday. He also plans to meet Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
With the power balances of the Middle East drastically reshaped by the Arab Spring during a first Obama term that began two days after Israel ended its last major Gaza offensive, the newly re-elected U.S. president faces testing choices to achieve Washington’s hopes for peace and stability across the region.