US lifts Israel flight ban as Kerry cites truce 'progress'

The ban was lifted hours after US Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Afp July 24, 2014

JERUSALEM: US airlines lifted a flight ban to Israel Thursday as Washington's top diplomat cited progress in ending 17 days of bloodshed in Gaza which has killed more than 730 Palestinians.

The ban was lifted just hours after US Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah and returned to Cairo to continue pushing regional efforts to ink a ceasefire.

The US national aviation agency had imposed the restriction on Tuesday after a rocket hit a house very close to the runways, in a move mirrored by Europe.

It was renewed late on Wednesday, prompting Hamas to hail the suspension of Tel Aviv flights as a "great victory for the resistance."

Shortly afterwards, the US agency rescinded the move.

"The FAA has lifted its restrictions on US airline flights into and out of Israel's Ben Gurion Airport," it said, while warning the situation was still "very fluid." There was no immediate word on whether European airlines would follow suit.

As truce efforts mounted, Hamas's exiled leader Khaled Meshaal vowed there would be no end to the fighting without the lifting of Israel's eight-year blockade on Gaza.

"We will not accept any initiative that does not lift the blockade on our people and that does not respect their sacrifices," he said.

Despite Hamas's intransigence, the skies over southern Israel remained quiet for seven hours, the army said, in what was the calmest night since the Israeli operation began on July 8. Since 5am (0200 GMT), just three mortars had struck the south, a spokesperson said.

But fighting continued in Gaza, with more than 30 people killed since midnight, mostly in the south, hiking the overall Palestinian toll to over 730, with rights groups saying more than 80% of them were civilians.

Most of the victims were killed in and around Khuzaa, a flashpoint area east of Khan Yunis which has been the site of intensive fighting since Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the Red Cross managed to evacuate 150 people from the area following negotiations with both sides, and another convoy of 10 ambulances entered the area early on Thursday, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told AFP.

The Red Cross also negotiated the evacuation on Wednesday of another 70 people from the northern town of Beit Hanun and a third group from Shejaiya near Gaza City, including an entire family of 11.

As US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN chief Ban Ki-moon held talks in Jerusalem Wednesday, they said they had pooled their efforts in the hope of boosting the quest for a truce.

"We have in the last 24 hours made some progress in moving toward that goal," Kerry said as he met president Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, before heading to Tel Aviv for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The men met for about two hours but made no statements after their talks. Kerry then left for Cairo and Netanyahu opened a meeting of his security cabinet.

Britain also joined the truce efforts with new Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond holding late-night talks with Abbas, saying a ceasefire was not enough.

Ban also brought up the Gaza conflict in a meeting with Saudi King Abdullah in Jeddah, according to the official SPA news agency.

Thirty-two Israeli soldiers have been killed in the fighting and three civilians have died in Israel when struck by projectiles fired from Gaza.

The latest casualty was a Thai farm labourer who died when a rocket struck the greenhouse where he was working in southern Israel.

Following his death, Bangkok demanded Israel "immediately" relocate 4,000 Thai nationals working near the Gaza Strip to areas safe from the fighting, a foreign ministry spokesperson said.

But it stopped short of evacuating all of its nationals from Israel.

Overnight, Kerry returned to Cairo where he began his truce mission on Monday, discussing ceasefire proposals with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, that he said provided a "framework" to end the fighting.

An initial Egyptian proposal calling for a halt to hostilities ahead of talks was accepted by Israel early last week but rejected by Hamas, which wants agreement on a comprehensive package before holding its fire.

A senior Hamas official in Cairo told AFP the militants wanted detailed guarantees that Israel would ease its blockade of the enclave, but said he hoped talks would bear fruit "in a few days".

As the violence raged, the UN Human Rights Council voted to launch a probe into Israel's Gaza offensive, in a move denounced by Netanyahu's office as "a travesty."

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