- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2014

Israeli forces on Sunday escalated their ground operations in Gaza City, leading to the deadliest day in the near two-week long conflict between Israel and Hamas-backed forces amid calls by top U.S. and Israeli officials for a cease-fire.

The Israeli military reported that 13 soldiers were killed early Sunday and Palestinian authorities reported that at least Palestinians were killed as air and tank fire pummeled the city for hours. More than 420 Palestinians and 20 Israelis have now been killed since fighting began July 8.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Hamas, which wants Israel and Egypt to ease their border blockade of Gaza, should immediately agree to a cease-fire without preconditions.

“You cannot reward terrorism. There can’t be a set of preconditioned demands that are going to be met,” Mr. Kerry said on “Meet the Press.” “So we support the Egyptian initiative, joined in by Israel and others, to have an immediate cease-fire. And we’re working that cease-fire very, very hard.”

Mr. Kerry will travel to Cairo soon to assist that effort, the White House said.

Sunday marked the third day of a stepped-up ground offensive from Israel after it’s tried to dismantle Hamas rocket launchers and ground tunnels into Israel with airstrikes for the past 10 days.

Much of the Sunday fighting took place in Gaza City’s Shijaiyah neighborhood, which Israeli officials have blamed for some 8 percent of the roughly 1,700 rockets fired at Israel since July 8.

Palestinian authorities reported that 35,000 people were forced to flee from the latest round of fighting, with dozens of homes destroyed.

President Obama spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuSunday by phone about the ongoing conflict — their second call in the last three days, the White House said.

Mr. Netanyahu blamed Hamas for all of the civilian casualties on both sides.

“They want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can, … it’s gruesome,” Mr. Netanyahu said on CNN. “They use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. They want the more dead the better.”

The fighting comes as United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had plans to head to the region in hopes of kick-starting stalled efforts on a cease-fire.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, says Israel has the right to do everything in its power to protect its interests and that there have been comparatively fewer Israeli casualties because of its state-of-the-art Iron Dome defense system.

“But if left up to Hamas, thousands of Israelis would be dead,” Mr. Graham said on “Meet the Press.” “I hope the international community will not find a moral equivalence here. To the Israeli government: Do whatever is necessary to protect your people. Stay as long as you need to stay.”

- The Associated Press contributed to this report.