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Israel holds off Gaza ground assault as world urges calm

Israel kept up its punishing raids on Gaza on Monday, but held off from a threatened ground incursion as the world intensified efforts to broker a truce.

JERUSALEM: Israel kept up its punishing raids on Gaza Monday, but held off from a threatened ground incursion as the world intensified efforts to broker a truce. With Israel's campaign to halt cross-border rocket fire entering its seventh day Monday, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was to discuss moves to seek UN intervention at an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo.

And UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged Israel to scrap plans for a ground offensive, saying "too many" Palestinian civilians had been killed as the death toll from Israel's punishing air campaign hit 172, with another 1,230 wounded. The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) has said more than three-quarters of the victims were civilians.

But, despite preparations for a possible ground attack, Israel appeared to be holding off with media reports saying that ministers attending a Sunday evening meeting of the security cabinet had decided against putting boots on the ground -- for the time being. Overnight, Israeli warplanes struck more than 40 sites in the Gaza Strip, hitting three training facilities used by Hamas's armed wing, and killing two people, medics said.

And Palestinian security sources reported army shelling in the northern town of Beit Lahiya where Israel had on Sunday warned residents to leave ahead of an impending assault, sending thousands fleeing their homes in terror. But the promised attack never materialised. Hamas had told residents to ignore the Israeli warning.

Early Monday, the army said it had used a Patriot surface-to-air-missile to shoot down an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) off the Ashdod coastline, some 28 kilometres north of Gaza.

Army radio said it was likely carrying explosives in a fresh Hamas attempt to stage an attack. With a growing number of Palestinian civilians among the dead, international efforts to end the bloodshed have taken on a renewed sense of urgency.

Abbas has called for the United Nations to put the state of Palestine under "international protection" due to the worsening violence in Gaza, and would discuss efforts to end the bloodshed at a meeting of the Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo, officials said.

"At the Arab foreign ministers' meeting ... the State of Palestine will ask all parties present to adopt a draft resolution at the ministerial level to be presented at the next UN Security Council meeting and to follow-up on this matter accordingly at the UN," a statement from the Palestine Liberation Organisation said. Also Sunday, in a phone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated US willingness to help mediate a truce and said he was engaged with regional leaders to "help stop the rocket fire" and allow the calm to be restored, a senior State Department official said.

Washington has no direct contacts with Hamas, which is on its terror blacklist, so all efforts would likely be channelled through Qatar and Egypt. Quoting Israeli security sources, army radio said there were four channels engaged in trying to bring about a ceasefire -- the Palestinian Authority, Qatar, Washington and Cairo. Top diplomats from Germany and Italy were also due in the region to bolster truce efforts, officials said Sunday.

But Netanyahu has made clear the military was hitting Hamas "with growing force" and said it was not clear when the campaign would end. So far, no Israelis have been killed, although militants in Gaza have pounded the south and centre of the country with about 760 rockets since the fighting began on July 8, the army said Monday, with another 200 intercepted.

Late on Sunday, a rocket fired from Syria hit the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, causing no casualties, but prompting troops to respond with artillery fire at Syrian army positions, the army said. Several hours later, two rockets fired from southern Lebanon struck northern Israel, causing no injuries but sparking a military response, with both incidents raised fears that the conflict in and around Gaza could spread.

An AFP correspondent in southern Lebanon said Israeli troops fire more than 30 shells across the border, but there was no immediate report on casualties. On Sunday, Israeli naval commandos staged a brief ground assault in northern Gaza on a mission to destroy longer-range rockets, with the army warning residents to leave the area ahead of a major assault on the sector.

Even before the warning, thousands began fleeing the area after a night of traumatic violence, with around 17,000 people taking shelter in installations run by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, the agency said. "It was the middle of the night, and I gathered the children, they were so afraid," said Samari al-Atar, breaking down in tears as she described how her family fled barefoot with shooting all around.

The latest escalation began on June 12 when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered, triggering a crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank and an uptick of rocket fire from Gaza, which worsened after a Palestinian teen was killed by Jewish extremists on July 2.

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