GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The United States announced signs of progress in cease-fire talks Wednesday, but prospects for a quick end to the fighting were dim as Palestinian families fled fierce battles in southern Gaza and the death toll rose to more than 700 Palestinians and 34 Israelis.
Underscoring the challenges facing international negotiators shuttling throughout the Middle East in a high-profile bid to end the bloodshed, the leader of Hamas insisted the Islamic militants would not relent until their main demand of lifting an Egyptian-Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip is met.
On the ground, meanwhile, Israeli troops backed by tanks and aerial drones clashed with Hamas fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles on the outskirts of Khan Younis, killing at least eight militants, according to a Palestinian health official. Hundreds of people fled their homes as the battle unfolded, flooding into the streets with what few belongings they could carry, many with children in tow. They said they were seeking shelter in nearby U.N. schools.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who met for the second time this week with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, flew to Israel on an Air Force jet — despite a ban imposed a day earlier by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on commercial flights into Ben-Gurion International Airport because of Hamas rocket fire nearby.
"We certainly have made steps forward," Kerry said in Jerusalem, without elaborating. "There's still work to be done."
Israel has insisted it must substantially curb the military capabilities of the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, a position that appears to have gained support within the U.S. administration.