POSTED: Wednesday, July 23, 2014 - 6:24am
UPDATED: Wednesday, July 23, 2014 - 12:31pm
GAZA CITY (CNN) — Washington's top diplomat landed in Israel on Wednesday on an urgent mission from his boss -- to push for an "immediate cessation of hostilities."
Feverish striving by diplomats to reach a cease-fire has been fruitless, as the Palestinian death toll rose to 649 Wednesday. The fatality count on the Israeli side stands at 32, all but three of them soldiers.
A Hamas mortar shell killed a foreign worker in Ashkelon on Wednesday.
As blood continued to flow in Gaza, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry burned the candle at both ends to try to stop it, making calls until 3 a.m. to all sides.
Now, Kerry will shuttle between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
He also met with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, already on the ground working to stop the bloodshed in Gaza that has claimed the lives of mostly civilians.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said a child was killed in Gaza every hour on Monday and Tuesday.
The U.N.'s humanitarian chief was on the verge of accusing Israel of war crimes over the carnage.
"There seems to be a strong possibility that international humanitarian law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Wednesday.
Strikes on neighborhoods
Pillay highlighted the Israeli military's concentrated targeting of Shaja'ia, a densely populated Gaza neighborhood bordering Israel. Carnage there has been particularly brutal.
But Hamas operates heavily out of that neighborhood, Israel's government has said, using residents as human shields.
On Tuesday, the military said it hit more than 187 targets overnight, and most of them were in Shaja'ia. The Israel Defense Forces has warned residents to flee multiple times and has accused Hamas of ordering them to remain in their homes.
Palestinian ambulances have been shelled, Gazan medics have complained. On Wednesday, the IDF said militants used one to escape the Israeli military.
The International Committee of the Red Cross prepared to go into Shaja'ia early Wednesday. The neighborhood is "partially demolished," the ICRC said.
But things were calm.
"While no formal ceasefire in the area has been announced, an informal pause appears to be in place for now," it said in a tweet.
U.N. workers' close call
Fighting shifted to Tuffah, east of Gaza City, on Wednesday.
Hamas' al-Qassam brigades fired a rocket-propelled grenade at an Israeli personnel carrier, it said. Israeli soldiers died in the clash, the brigade said.
An Israeli strike hit a mosque Gaza City, killing one person and wounding 45 more.
Also in Gaza on Tuesday, as Israeli soldiers and Hamas fighters gunned for each other, U.N. workers, trying to help civilians, found themselves wedged in between.
Incoming tank shells "believed to be from the Israeli military" thumped their building, an unoccupied girls' school, where the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees had housed 300 civilians.
It was at least the second shell hit in two days.
The school took fire the day before, and U.N. staff where on site to inspect that damage when shells hit again, putting their lives in danger, the UNRWA said.
The Israeli military has previously accused militants of hiding weapons in U.N. shelters, though there was no specific such claim in this incident.
In a twist of fate on Tuesday, in another vacant UNRWA school, workers found hidden rockets, the second such discovery since fighting began.
In Jerusalem, Netanyahu showed Ban, the U.N. secretary-general, a collection of rockets that had been fired into Israel.
Ban called the evidence "quite shocking" and called for an immediate end to the attacks. But he also chided Israel over its military campaign, saying it "will not increase Israel's stability and security in the longer term."
No backing down
In addition to the deaths, another 4,120 people have been wounded since Israel's Operation Protective Edge started on July 8 with an airstrike campaign.
The IDF added a ground offensive last week to root out Hamas attack tunnels leading to Israel. And the death toll has jumped, as Hamas has refused to back down or talk about a cease-fire.
Hamas has said it is holding an Israeli soldier it captured in an ambush on an armored personnel carrier Sunday. Six other IDF soldiers died in the ambush.
On Tuesday, the Israeli military released the soldier's name -- Sgt. Oren Shaul -- but said it was "working to identify his body."
Israeli media reported that Shaul was missing and presumed dead.
Kerry's frustrations, opportunities
Kerry has been frustrated in his efforts for nine months to build peace between Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank.
Gaza and Hamas, which the United States considers to be a terrorist organization, present a tougher set of variables.
It's hard to tell if the military or political wing of Hamas is in charge, said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator.
But Kerry may be able to get a foot in the door, making use of a Hamas weakness. Its government is too financially strapped to care for its own people.
"Hamas leaders believe they need to show something tangible for the death and destruction their missiles have produced in Gaza," Miller said.
The United States has already pledged $47 million in humanitarian aid for Gaza, Kerry said Tuesday.
That might not sit well with Israel, which on Tuesday accused Hamas of diverting aid to build attack tunnels into Israel.
"Just yesterday, heavily armed Hamas terrorists emerged from a tunnel 200 meters (656 feet) from a kindergarten," Israeli U.N. representative David Roet said on Tuesday.
Hamas has also been able to put some pressure on Israel to negotiate, Miller said.
Rising casualties could dent public opinion in favor of Operation Protective Edge. And Hamas has proved deadlier than in the past with tunnel attacks in Israel and tougher ground battles against Israeli soldiers in Gaza.
"They have inflicted more fatalities on the Israel Defense Forces than they did in the entire three-week war of 2008/9," Miller said.
On Tuesday, Gazan militants also inflicted a financial wound.
A Hamas missile landed a mile from the runways of Ben Gurion International Airport, where Kerry landed. The close call was enough to prompt airlines around the world to stay away from Israeli tarmacs.
Much of Israel's income comes from tourism.
Diplomats seem to be on the same page in their overarching approach to a possible cease-fire.
Kerry summed it up after meeting Tuesday in Cairo.
"I intend ... to work to see if we can find a way forward, a way that ends the violence and then addresses the underlying causes of this crisis," Kerry said.
Egyptian and Arab League officials have already urged Hamas to accept a cease-fire, then enter dialogue to discuss its broader concerns, but Hamas has turned down their previous proposal.
Negotiators hadn't consulted their leaders, they said.
They want a broad deal, including the release of recently detained Palestinians and the easing of border restrictions. Border crossings into Israel and Egypt are closed, and Gazans are locked into their narrow strip of land, which critics have called a large open-air prison.
Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, echoed the demand Tuesday in a televised speech.
"We want to reach a cease-fire agreement that will end all hostilities and end the siege of Gaza," he said.
Ian Lee reported from Gaza City. Ben Brumfield reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Tal Heinrich, Ali Younes, Kareem Khadder and Tim Lister contributed to this report.