Palestinian civilian toll climbs in Gaza

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Israeli aircraft struck crowded areas in the Gaza Strip today, driving up the Palestinian death toll to 94 and devastating several homes belonging to one clan as Israel broadened its targets in the 6-day-old offensive meant to quell Hamas rocket fire on Israel.

Escalating its bombing campaign, Israel on Sunday began attacking homes of activists in Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza. These attacks have led to a sharp spike in civilian casualties, killing 24 civilians in just under two days and doubling the number of civilians killed in the conflict, a Gaza health official said.

The rising toll was likely to intensify pressure on Israel to end the fighting. Hundreds of civilian casualties in an Israeli offensive in Gaza four years ago led to fierce international condemnation of Israel.

Hamas fighters, meanwhile, have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel in the current round of fighting, including 75 today, among them one that hit an empty school. Twenty rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile battery, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. Rockets landed in open areas of Beersheva, Ashdod, Asheklon. Schools in southern Israel have been closed since the start of the offensive Wednesday.

The new airstrikes came as Egypt was trying to broker a cease-fire, with the help of Turkey and Qatar. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and a delegation of Arab foreign ministers were expected in Gaza on Tuesday. However, Israel and Hamas appeared far apart in their demands, and a quick end to the fighting seemed unlikely.

A senior Egyptian official told Associated Press today that Hamas and Israel were each presenting Egypt with their conditions for a cease-fire.

"I hope that by the end of the day we will receive a final signal of what can be achieved," said the official, who is familiar with the indirect negotiations. He said Israel and Hamas are both looking for guarantees to ensure a long-term stop to hostilities. The official says Egypt's aim is to stop the fighting and "find a direct way to lift the siege of Gaza."

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the indirect negotiations.

Overall, the offensive that began Wednesday killed 94 Palestinians, including 50 civilians, and wounded some 720 people, Gaza heath official Ashraf al-Kidra said. Among the wounded were 225 children, he said.

On the Israeli side, three civilians have died from Palestinian rocket fire and dozens have been wounded. An Israeli rocket-defense system has intercepted hundreds of rockets bound for populated areas.

In today's violence, a missile struck a three-story home in the Gaza City's Zeitoun area, flattening the building and badly damaging several nearby homes. Shell-shocked residents searching for belongings climbed over debris of twisted metal and cement blocks in the street.

The strike killed three adults and a 2-year-old boy, and wounded 42 people, al-Kidra said.

Residents said Israel first sent a warning strike at around 2 a.m. today, prompting many people in the area to flee their homes. A few minutes later, heavy bombardment followed.

Ahed Kitati, 38, had rushed out after the warning missile to try to hustle people to safety. But he was fatally struck by a falling cinderblock, leaving behind a pregnant wife, five young daughters and a son, the residents said.

Sitting in mourning with her mother and siblings just hours after her father's death, 11-year-old Aya Kitati clutched a black jacket, saying she was freezing, even though the weather was mild. "We were sleeping, and then we heard the sound of the bombs," she said, then broke down sobbing.

Also today, Israel bombarded the remains of the former national security compound in Gaza City. Flying shrapnel killed one child and wounded others living nearby, al-Kidra said. Five farmers were killed in two separate strikes, al-Kidra said, including three who he said had been mistakenly identified earlier by Hamas security officials as Islamic Jihad fighters.

Other strikes killed two fighters on a motorcycle in southern Gaza and two passengers in a taxi that had put a press sign in the windshield, al-Kidra said.

Israel launched the current offensive after months of intensifying rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, which has continued despite the strikes.

In the night from Sunday to Monday, aircraft targeted about 80 militant sites, including underground rocket-launching sites, smuggling tunnels and training bases, as well as Palestinian command posts and weapons storage facilities located in buildings owned by militant commanders, the Israeli military said in a release. Aircraft and gunboats joined forces to attack Hamas police headquarters, and Palestinian rocket squads were struck as they prepared to fire, the release said.

In all, 1,350 targets in the Gaza Strip have been struck since the Israeli operation began. However, military activity over the past two nights has dropped off as targets change and international efforts to wrest a cease-fire plod ahead.

Israel and Hamas have put forth widely divergent conditions for a truce. But failure to end the fighting threatens to touch off an Israeli ground invasion, for which thousands of soldiers, backed by tanks and armored vehicles, have already been mobilized and dispatched to Gaza's border.

President Barack Obama said he was in touch with players across the region in hopes of halting the fighting. While defending Israel's right to defend itself against the rocket fire, he also warned of the risks the Jewish state would take if it were to expand its air assault into a ground war.

"If we see a further escalation of the situation in Gaza, the likelihood of us getting back on any kind of peace track that leads to a two-state solution is going to be pushed off way into the future," Obama said.

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