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Diplomatic drive intensifies as Gaza death toll soars

Fresh Israeli bombardments killed five people in Gaza on Sunday, hiking the death toll from the assault to over 350, as diplomatic efforts to end the conflict picked up with UN chief Ban Ki-moon due in the region.

GAZA CITY: Fresh Israeli bombardments killed five people in Gaza on Sunday, hiking the death toll from the assault to over 350, as diplomatic efforts to end the conflict picked up with UN chief Ban Ki-moon due in the region.

As Israel pressed its air, sea and ground offensive against the besieged coastal territory, Hamas refused to yield, continuing assaults and reiterating its demands for any ceasefire to take place.

Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal was to meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Qatar to discuss an Egyptian-proposed truce on Sunday, and the movement said it had received an invite to Cairo for ceasefire talks.

On day 13 of the bloodiest Gaza conflict in several years, early morning Israeli strikes in the southern city of Rafah killed five men, medics said, raising the total death toll to 348 Palestinians.

Five Israelis have been killed, including two soldiers in a Saturday commando-style raid inside Israeli territory by Hamas militants.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon departed New York on Saturday and was due in the region on Sunday to bolster intense diplomatic efforts aimed at ending the bloodshed, which has included a high civilian toll.

Israel says its operation aims to stamp out militant cross-border rocket fire, and violence has intensified since it launched a ground operation in Gaza on Thursday.

Among some 47 Palestinians killed on Saturday - one of the bloodiest days of the conflict - were two six-year-olds and a toddler, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said.

The increasing number of children killed in the conflict is causing a growing outcry, with a joint statement from NGOs War Child and Defence for Children International saying more children had been killed than militants.

Figures provided by the UN children's agency, UNICEF, indicate 73 of the victims were under the age of 18.

"Children should be protected from the violence, and they should not be the victims of a conflict for which they have no responsibility," UNICEF's Catherine Weibel told AFP.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu absolved Israel of all responsibility on Saturday for civilian casualties, laying the blame squarely on the shoulders of Hamas.

A statement from Netanyahu's office cited him as telling Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a phone call that Hamas was "using innocent civilians as human shields for its terrorist activities; it is responsible if civilians are inadvertently hit."

The UN's Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, said earlier in the week it found 20 rockets stored in one of its schools in Gaza, condemning the "group or groups" involved.

UNRWA has opened 49 of its schools to shelter those fleeing the most heavily-bombarded areas. So far, more than 60,000 Gazans have sought sanctuary at UN institutions, the agency said.

As Ban headed for the region to help Israelis and Palestinians "end the violence and find a way forward", Hamas said it had received an invitation to Cairo to discuss a ceasefire proposed by Egypt.

Hamas "received an invitation, through mediators, for a delegation headed by Khaled Meshaal to visit Cairo and discuss the Egyptian initiative," it said in a statement.

It said the Islamist movement's "response was that its position on the initiative is known, but it is at the same time ready to cooperate with a move by any party that will achieve the specific Palestinian demands."

Hamas earlier in the week rejected an Egyptian proposal for a truce - which was accepted by Israel - saying that it had not been consulted and demanded a full settlement before it ceased firing. An Egyptian foreign ministry official said he could not confirm or deny the new invitation.

Hamas relations with Egypt have hit a low since Cairo's military regime took power last July, ousting Hamas ally the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey and Qatar, where Meshaal is based, are more sympathetic to the movement.

Abbas and Meshaal will meet in Qatar on Sunday to discuss the Egyptian-proposed truce, an official close to Abbas said.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said his movement had given "the demands of the resistance to all the parties concerned, including Qatar, Turkey and the Arab League" as well as Abbas and Egypt.

The demands included an end of the "war on the Gaza Strip," a complete lift of the siege on it, opening the Rafah crossing with Egypt, freedom of movement in the border areas, cancelling the buffer zone and expanding the freedom to fish 12 nautical miles from shore.

In addition, Hamas demanded the release of its members who had been freed in a 2011 deal and recently re-arrested in an Israeli crackdown on the West Bank.

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